For Some of North Dakota’s Small Towns Not Even the Law Is an Open Record

Documents from a small-town records audit, conducted by the Grand Forks Herald, are displayed on a table. (Grand Forks Herald photo)

North Dakota has some potent open records laws because of these two foundational requirements of government:

  1. Every record the government has is presumed open to the public unless specifically exempted by law.
  2. If a governing entity denies a request for records, they must justify the denial by citing the law exempting the records.

Unfortunately, many people who work in the government in North Dakota don’t understand this.

Recently the Grand Forks Herald audited several small towns in their region (both North Dakota and Minnesota). They put in requests for records to see what the response would be.

What they found was depressing. Some towns never responded to their requests for records. For others, there were months of delays and wrangling.

“Our concern is that open government isn’t as good as many state leaders perceive it,” the Herald wrote in a subsequent opinion. “This is not a knock on the attorney general himself, but a reminder that from the capitol, all probably appears well. But today, we’re not convinced it is.”

What code were city officials enforcing if they haven’t had access to their own ordinances for a year? Also, ordinances are law. How can citizens follow the law if they can’t access it to read it?

I request a lot of records from all manner of governing entities, from state-level agencies down to small-town city councils. Most of the time, my requests are handled efficiently with no problems. Sometimes I meet with some resistance. Particularly when those I’m requesting records from sense I’m going to use those records to write something critical. Even in those instances, I can usually get what I’m looking for with little hassle.

I’m not sure this is the experience the general public has. I’m known in government circles. I’ve filed a lot of open records requests over the years, and I’ve been successful most of the time. Besides, I have a pretty big bully pulpit if some bureaucrat tries to jerk me around.

What I hear from many of you readers is that accessing public records can be an arduous process, with public servants acting dismissive of requests.

Even I run into some genuinely baffling moments. A couple of weeks ago, I was trying to get a hold of a copy of the city ordinances from a small-town government. I was working on something that ultimately didn’t pan out as a story. That happens a lot. I never got a full copy of the ordinances. I was able to find a partial copy online, which satisfied what I needed.

I did talk to a bewildered city clerk who wanted to know who I was and why I wanted the city’s ordinances. She then claimed she didn’t have the ordinances. They are supposedly being re-written, a process that had been on-going for more than a year, according to this clerk.

This was an extraordinary situation, if true. What code were city officials enforcing if they haven’t had access to their own ordinances for a year? Also, ordinances are law. How can citizens follow the law if they can’t access it to read it?

Believe it or not, I ran into a similar situation a couple of years ago with another small town in southeast North Dakota. I requested a copy of the local ordinances, only to be told they were unavailable because they were being re-written.

I was gobsmacked. Even when the law is in the process of being changed, the previous law is in effect. The North Dakota Century Code does not go on hiatus while the state Legislature is in session.

I can understand why government officials, particularly at the public level, might be a little cynical about the public’s access to records and meetings. Let’s face it, most people don’t seem to care. They don’t go to the meetings. They don’t follow the ins-and-outs of their local government carefully.

Still, when someone from the public requests information about their government, it is the duty of those who work in the government to honor that request in an efficient and forthright manner. Not just because that’s the law in North Dakota, but because it’s the right thing to do.

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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