Bill Providing Open Records Penalties Defeated, Lawmaker Says "We Are Watching"

HB1435 was introduced by Rep. Rand Boehning (R-Fargo) and would have allowed for a civil penalty against violators of the state’s open records and open meetings laws.

“The reason I put this bill forward is higher education,” Boehning said during his floor speech in favor of the bill. He noted that there the North Dakota University System has been guilty of “12 or 13” violations in recent years (it’s 18 since 2010 by my count), and said he’d like to see a “few green votes” in favor of the bill.

But Rep. Kathy Hawken, who carried the bill out of the Judiciary Committee, noted that the legislation was opposed by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office.

During testimony on the bill Stenehjem said he is concerned about his office acting as “judge, jury and executioner” on matters resulting in fines paid to his office. There were also concerns about who would pay the fines if a state agency breaks the law.

What good is a fine if it just results in the taxpayers paying themselves?

Rep. Kim Koppelman (R-West Fargo) stood and complimented Boehning on his intent with the legislation, but opposed it based on the notion that North Dakota has the some of the “strongesT” open records laws in the country. He also questioned whether or not a penalty for open records violations was something we should want.

“They’ve always been applied without penalty,” he said noting that the primary enforcement for violations is “embarrassment” when it is reported that someone broke the law. But is embarrassment enough when you have repeated and flagrant violations of the law as we have with the North Dakota University System?

Does anyone think the higher education folks care about violating this law any more, given how frequently they do it?

I don’t know that Rep. Boehning’s bill was the right way to address this issue – I think the concerns brought up by Stenehjem are valid – but something needs to change.

As referenced during the floor debate Stenehjem is going to convene a task force to look at this issue, and he’s told me he’d like to appoint me to it. That’s something I plan on doing.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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