Originally SB2222, introduced by Senator Tim Flakoll (R-Fargo), would have done two things:
- Make all legislator requests for records a public record in their own right.
- Limit legislators to no more than $5,000 worth of requests per biennium unless Legislative Management approves said requests. Requests over that dollar limit not approved by Legislative Management would come out of the lawmaker’s pocket.
The bill has now emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee with a unanimous do-pass recommendation, but it has been amended in terms of its scope. Here is the entirety of the legislation now:
That’s significantly better from Senator Flakoll’s original bill. One of the concerns supporters of the legislation want to address are the titanic records requests filed by some lawmakers which have made headlines. Naming the lawmakers making the request might get them to rein in some of the more unreasonable requests.
Still, I’m hesitant to make any changes to open records laws. This legislation is clearly inspired by the intense focus on open records and open meetings at the North Dakota University System (which Senator Flakoll is an employee of), and I don’t think we ought to be rewarding their hostile attitude toward transparency with this sort of legislation.
Also, while some lawmakers might fairly be described as abusing records requests, there are also reasons to keep their requests private. As someone who files a lot of open records requests, I can say that you often don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it. Suffice it to say that state agencies aren’t exactly forthcoming with public information that may be embarrassing to them or harmful to their agendas. Sometimes finding the information can require a fishing trip.
Our elected members of the Legislature should be inquisitive. While nobody wants to see open records requests used as a weapon, we should also encourage our lawmakers to obtain information and actively search for problems. It’s part of their jobs.
I’m afraid that forcing them to do it all out in the open would make many of them too shy to make the requests. Especially given the propensity of some in the media (I’m looking at you, Fargo Forum editorial board) to attack those making requests of certain sacred cow institutions like North Dakota State University.
While this bill is much improved with its amendment, I think it still ought to fail.