University System Backs Off Requests For Open Records Exemptions

The State Board of Higher Education caused a stir recently when they announced their intention to seek exemptions from open records laws. As initially described, the university system wanted to exempt performance evaluations of the university presidents from open records requests. They also wanted to exempt draft audit reports.

Now they’re backing off those requests. They’ve dropped the request to exempt audit reports entirely, and they now want only draft presidential evaluations exempted.

The prefiled legislation would protect records used by the board to prepare performance reviews for university presidents at the 11 institutions the SBHE oversees. The final reviews would be public record, which is different from the language originally used by Chancellor Larry Skogen at the Nov. 20 meeting and by a North Dakota University System document describing the intended legislation.

After a Dec. 3 article was published in various Forum Communication newspapers stating these facts, SBHE spokeswoman Linda Donlin reached out to the Heald via email later that day saying the board intended to restrict access only to the draft portion of the presidential reviews.

Murray Sagsveen, the system’s chief of staff and ethics director, said the changes happened throughout the drafting process.

“When we’re in draft form we were working with the language to make sure it said what we wanted it to say. … As we were working, getting the language down to what we wanted, it went through several versions to make sure the bill draft said what was originally intended,” Sagsveen said.

It is a testament to the utter lack of honesty among university system leaders that they’re now claiming this watered-down exemption is what they really intended all along, when earlier statements and documents clearly indicated otherwise.

At the community forum, SBHE Staff Adviser Janice Hoffarth said that while they hadn’t seen the final drafts, she was under the impression the original intention was to restrict access only to the draft portion of the reviews.

 Yeah. Right.

This push by the NDUS is no doubt a reaction to my request for president evaluations written by former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani in 2013. My publication of those records seriously upset certain university presidents, who claimed that they should have been allowed to review the evaluations before they were made public. In fact, former Minot State University President David Fuller claimed my publication of those records was illegal.

It wasn’t, but you can see how this current proposal has its roots in that incident.

We were talking about anything other than the North Dakota University System I might agree that it’s reasonable to pass this legislation. But this is a group of people who have earned no trust from the public or the legislature.

I think the status quo serves us just fine.

On a related note, get a load of this quote from SBHE member Grant Shaft who feels it’s too hard to hire university presidents because of all the transparency:

Board member Grant Shaft said hiring presidents and chancellors for the system is hard with North Dakota’s current open records laws.

“We leave a lot of good candidates on the shelf because of the immediate exposure they get,” he said at the forum.

Working a government job comes with taxpayer scrutiny. Particularly for men and women who would collect some of the largest salaries on the state payroll.

If they don’t like the scrutiny, clearly they’re not “good candidates.”

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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