In Defense of the Smoky Back Room

Governor Doug Burgum speaks as Lt. Governor Brent Sanford looks on. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

The Bismarck Tribune today, in an editorial, blisters Governor Doug Burgum for holding a closed-door meeting with oil and gas industry leaders to talk about pipeline safety.

“When Gov. Doug Burgum took office we knew he would take a different approach to government,” the Tribune writes. “Unfortunately, that includes excluding the public from discussions that directly impact them.”

I understand the point the Tribune is trying to make. I am a firm believer in government transparency. I think the public’s business out to be done in public, with exceptions that are few and very, very narrow. North Dakota’s open records and open meeting laws accomplish that goal.

The public interest is better served by that candor rather than some sterile, stage-managed event modulated to the point of irrelevance lest some off-the-cuff remark become a political talking point.

They are very broad. They work very well. I know because I use them. A lot.

But existing state law does allow for a political leader like Burgum to convene private meetings. What’s more, it should allow that sort of thing, and we ought not complain when it happens from time to time.

Pipeline safety, as we all learned during the #NoDAPL riots last year, is a hugely controversial issue. The public very much has an interest in it. But is that public interest served when political and industry leaders can’t meet and speak with one another candidly?

I’m not sure it is.

Governor Burgum wanted to have a meeting with one of our state’s most important industries to discuss a very sensitive area of public policy. His intention was to learn from the industry, and also to have the industry understand his concerns. In order for such a conversation to be productive it must consist of a level of candor which may not be possible if the spotlight of public scrutiny is on the meeting.

The public interest is better served by that candor rather than some sterile, stage-managed event modulated to the point of irrelevance lest some off-the-cuff remark become a political talking point.

To be sure, when it comes to actually making policy, the process should be open. But these sort of meanings to clear the air? To learn from one another? To speak hard truths to one another?

We should want them in that proverbial smoky back room. Otherwise they’re worthless.

I hope Governor Burgum has more meetings like this. They show that our Governor is engaged and interested in learning.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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