Lawmakers Make Massive Records Requests Because The Universities Can't Be Trusted

In order to make their case for SB2222, which would end anonymous requests for open records by lawmakers, the North Dakota University System has taken to leaking information about some really, really large requests of that variety.

The idea is to paint the requests as unreasonable, and the lawmakers as vindictive.

The university system pulled this stunt back in February when SB2222 – introduced by NDUS employee Senator Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo – was being considered in the Senate, and now that the bill is before the House they’re doing it again with some in the media (who are supposed to be pro-transparency) happily playing along.

It’s exactly this sort of hard ball politics from the universities that inspire these large requests from lawmakers.

If lawmakers felt they could ask someone like Chancellor Skogen or one of the university presidents a direct question and get a direct, accurate, and honest response we probably wouldn’t see this tussling over open records requests. But lawmakers don’t feel that way. They feel like they have to dig and investigate to get at the truth.

Nobody likes the idea of these gigantic requests. They’re impractical. It can require truly enormous amounts of public resources to comply with them, and it’s hard to fathom anyone having enough time to get anything meaningful out of hundreds of thousands of pages of responsive records.

So the question is, why do these lawmakers feel like they need to go on these fishing trips? Why do they feel like they need to cast such a wide net when they’re looking for information?

The answer is very simple: The universities can’t be trusted.

Flakoll’s legislation treats anonymous requests for information from lawmakers as though it were the problem, when really the problem is that the universities which are the target of these requests have not been honest when it comes to providing information.

They lie. They mislead. They obfuscate.

It is the job of our legislators to govern, and to do that job they must start with good information.

Earlier today NDUS Chancellor Larry Skogen was quoted by the Bismarck Tribune saying there is “a growing tension between this legislative body and the constituted independent governing board of higher education.” What is driving that tension is a feeling among lawmakers that NDUS representatives, up to and including Skogen himself, aren’t giving them solid, unbiased information.

Given the lousy track record the universities have when it comes to open records and open meetings requests, it’s not hard to understand why lawmakers feel that way. And one manifestation of those feelings of mistrust are open records fishing trips.

If lawmakers felt they could ask someone like Chancellor Skogen or one of the university presidents a direct question and get a direct, accurate, and honest response we probably wouldn’t see this tussling over open records requests. But lawmakers don’t feel that way. They feel like they have to dig and investigate to get at the truth.

The university system, through their employee Senator Flakoll, wants to correct this problem through a political maneuver to expose the lawmakers making these requests (the original bill also would have put capped their requests but that was amended out in the Senate).

But wouldn’t we all be better served if they just tried telling the truth for a change?

The House should kill SB2222 as a message to the university system to quit playing games and fix their relationship with the Legislature.

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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