Ed Schafer: SB2152 Will Result in Better Government

A Fargo FORUM editorial screams: “Reject bill that would invite secrecy.” It seems to me their tirade points to why nobody reads the newspapers anymore! Concerning Senate Bill 2152, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The proposed public policy that would be generated by this legislative action regards protecting the privacy of applicants for public officials while informing the public fully about those who are seriously being considered for filling open positions.

In the 1990s, our state was in need of hiring a head psychiatrist at the state hospital. A person had been recommended, and I was asked to try to recruit them for this important job for our state government. When we visited, he asked if I could guarantee him the job if he applied. Of course I said no but pledged to give him due consideration.

He liked his job and wasn’t looking to move but was intrigued with a new opportunity. However, he was worried that if he didn’t get the nod, he would ruin his relationship with his employees and lose trust with the Board of Trustees.

I heard of similar situations around the state in following years but really didn’t contemplate the impact that barriers to applicants can have.

Fast forward to last year when a new president was selected for Dickinson State University. Five exit interviews from that presidential search were granted to applicants who didn’t get the job. Four of the five said they wouldn’t apply again if given the opportunity.

Senate Bill 2152 will result in better government. Senate Bill 2152 is good for the people of North Dakota.

You see, the problem was not about getting or not getting the job, it was the information based technology we have today that made life difficult for these folks.

Maybe 20 years ago one might be able to apply to a school in Dickinson, North Dakota, and no one would even know. But today, as soon as a name is posted on the internet, it pops up virtually all over the world. It is pretty easy for an employer to have employees’ names on Google-alert and be notified within minutes if someone receives an award, is charged with a crime, or stops for lunch with a competitor.

And with our state’s open records laws, anyone applying for job will be instantly exposed.

Now the news media likes that so they can write stories about who applied and what their background and qualifications are. But what about the privacy of the applicant?

How does it help them if they apply and don’t even make the first cut? Will their employer write them off as a short-timer? Will their direct reports think they don’t have to worry about performance because they are working for someone who probably isn’t going to be there when it comes to job evaluation time anyway?

And let me ask you this: If someone applies for a job and isn’t exposed to the media in the first go- around, is there harm to the people of North Dakota? SB 2152 assures that citizens will have full access to all the information regarding candidates who might be selected for these jobs!

Interestingly, the FORUM editorial favors keeping confidential the list of initial applicants for college presidents and chancellors of the university system and supports the concept that “once the list has been culled to select finalists, those names would become public.” But then they go on to discriminate against other public employees by saying they should not be afforded the same treatment. Why would we put a university president in a different category than a police chief in West Fargo or Watford City? Do we set aside as elite a chancellor because the position commands more salary than a county administrator? Evidently the FORUM believes this to be OK.

The North Dakota Newspaper Association has been flooding Legislator’s mailboxes with handwringing about how SB 2152 would expand executive sessions and cause a proliferation of closed meetings. This is, unfortunately, what some would expect from media these days—false narrative. In fact, Jack McDonald, the professional lobbyist for the media’s special interest groups was forced to admit in a Senate committee hearing that this proposed legislation in no way alters or changes the executive session laws that already exist.

The FORUM editorial ends with; “There’s an old saying: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Let’s keep North Dakota a place where the sun shines on government.” We all can agree with that for sure! This proposed legislation shines the light of privacy on applicants and illuminates the public trust with information and knowledge of finalists actually being considered. I hope also, that we can agree that we should do everything we can to attract the best possible leaders for our government positions.

Senate Bill 2152 will result in better government. Senate Bill 2152 is good for the people of North Dakota.

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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