Kudos To Stenehjem For Addressing Open Records Problems

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has a column in the Grand Forks Herald today regarding open records laws and the problems some in our state have with following them.

There was a bill before the Legislature earlier this session which would have put in place fines for repeat violators of open records/open meetings laws, but it was defeated with opposition from Stenehjem. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see a problem. He intends to appoint a task force to look at a solution to the problem noting that, for some state agencies (the university system, obviously), just getting a negative legal opinion from the Attorney General and some negative accompanying media coverage isn’t enough.

The system, for the most part, works, and it’s widely acknowledged as among the best in the nation. Hundreds of meetings in cities, counties, townships and school districts occur across the state every day in compliance with the law. On a daily basis, public entities provide records to the public without complications. They do not make news because public bodies comply with the law, as is expected of them.

The required actions to remedy the violations — coupled with the ensuing public and press scrutiny following an opinion — usually act as a deterrent for repeat violations and prompt entities to become better informed and abiding of the open records and meetings law. The public aggrieved by such violations also support the system, as it provides a timely and no-cost solution to the problem.

Although rare, the system does not work to curb violations for every entity. There are some repeat violators that continually violate the law, despite training, warnings and multiple opinions issued against them.

I share the concerns of the public and the need for stricter penalties in those situations. To address those concerns, I will be appointing a task force — as I have twice before — to make necessary revisions and updates to the laws.

One of the prominent issues the task force will be addressing is searching for appropriate remedies for repeat violators.

Stenehjem’s idea for a task force is a good one, and I can say that he has told me previously that he intends to appoint me to that task force.

I’ll be happy to serve on it, presuming Stenehjem still intends to appoint me, though I suspect there will be some criticism of my inclusion since I’m an opinion guy and “just a blogger.” But I think I can bring a unique perspective to the task force. Groups like the North Dakota Newspaper Association typically do a great job on open records laws, but theirs is the perspective of professional journalists. I think sometimes they’re not as concerned with access to records by the general public.

My experience, as “just a blogger” not associated with a traditional media outlet, is much closer to what an average member of the public experiences.

Transparency is an issue I’m passionate about, as evidenced by some of the wars I’ve fought with state agencies over records. I think it transcends ideological divides. I believe that, with only rare exceptions, it is the responsibility of public officials to do the public’s business in the light of public scrutiny.

That can be challenging at times, especially when controversial issues are being debated, and it can even be costly in terms of taxpayer dollars spent on responding to open records requests. But we should be willing to pay those costs in exchange for a government that is open and accessible.

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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