By Rob Port | Watchdog.org North Dakota Bureau
TOO OPEN: Interim North Dakota University Chancellor Larry Skogen says the state’s universities are receiving too many open records requests, and that some are “politically motivated.”
BISMARCK, N.D. — Since 2010, the North Dakota University System has violated state open records and open meetings laws 17 times, according to records from the North Dakota Attorney General’s office. Now Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen is crying foul on some of those requests, saying they’re politically motivated.
“Open records law is certainly designed to ensure transparent government,” Skogen told an Oct. 3 meeting of the State Board of Higher Education. “We all agree on the need for that, but what has happened is these laws are being used for some politically motivated individuals. Now our communications have become a fishing pond in which these individuals cast wide nets in the hope of finding something to use against political opponents or for political purposes.”
But Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who is tasked with enforcing the state’s open records laws, said the motivation for open records requests doesn’t matter.
“First it should be noted that public officials are not allowed to ask a person why they are requesting records or what they propose to do with them once they get them,” Stenehjem told Watchdog via email in response to Skogen’s comments. “Anyone can ask for public records to do with as they wish. Undoubtedly there are those who ask for records for ‘political purposes,’ which is the one of the principal reasons for having an open records laws in the first place. It is to be expected that the loyal opposition, watchdogs or the media will use the law to hold public officials accountable.”
Asked if he felt open records laws were too broad, Stenehjem said they are not.
“While our open government laws are very broad, I don’t think the laws are too broad,” he said. “Sometimes requests are voluminous, but agencies have the discretion to charge for the time needed to locate or redact records after the first hour of time.”
Jack McDonald, legal counsel for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, agreed.
“No, they are not too broad and no, I don’t think it is too much of a burden to respond because they are public records and belong to the public,” McDonald told Watchdog. “Public officials are supposed to do the public’s business.”
State law allows public entities to charge 25 cents per copy for records printed on letter-sized paper, and the actual cost of copying larger items such as maps or photographs. Public entities are also allowed to charge $25 per hour for locating records after the first hour.
Lawmakers have previously accused the university system of evading requests for open records. Rep. Bob Martinson, a Republican from Bismarck, requested emails related to the controversial sale of a nursing college to North Dakota State University, which is being reviewed by the Legislature and accused NDSU President Dean Bresciani of avoiding the request.
“Either Dean Bresciani went to the Lois Lerner school of email management, or she went to the Dean Bresciani school, but either way they’re both honored graduates,” Martinson told Watchdog in July, referring to the former Internal Revenue Service official made infamous by a national controversy over missing emails.