Weather Forecast


Recount scheduled in Stutsman County Commission race

Column: Public servants hostile to openness aren't worthy of public service

1 / 2
columnist Rob Port2 / 2

Here's one from the "give them an inch and they'll take a mile" department.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed a law exempting applicants for state government jobs from open records laws during the early rounds of the hiring process.

I was a reluctant supporter of the change. The premise for the reform is that North Dakota's very strong, very broad transparency laws diminish the number of people who apply for openings.

Given, as one example, the awful job the State Board of Higher Education has been doing when it comes to hiring chancellors for our university system in recent years, I found that logic compelling.

If we can attract a better class of applicant than we've been getting, maybe that's worth sacrificing a small bit of public access.

I worried, though, that the Legislature taking this step would embolden the enemies of transparency.

Turns out I was right to worry based on recent headlines.

Chancellor Mark Hagerott, who according to internal university system reports is prone to lose his temper when targeted by open records requests, wants more restrictions on access to university research data.

State Board of Higher Education Chairman Don Morton, meanwhile, wants his board to meet publicly less often while simultaneously doing more socializing outside of the public eye. Which is a recipe for turning public meetings into a mere pretense. A ratification of decisions discussed and made elsewhere.

Outside of higher education, public leaders trying to get the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project back on the rails after years of arrogant and incompetent leadership did themselves no favors by kicking a reporter out of two recent meetings. A project already plagued by an inability to win buy-in from important public constituencies isn't going to be served well by even the perception of secrecy and backroom dealing.

I file a lot of open records requests, and a certain degree of defensiveness is normal. But I can say that in the last several months it seems a new sense of hostility to such requests has permeated nearly all levels of government in North Dakota.

Just before writing this column I put in a request to City of Minot Manager Tom Barry for information regarding proposals for spending federal resiliency dollars on a new park or gathering space.

Barry rebuffed my request, saying the information would only be available just days before a city committee would be considering them later this month.

How is the public supposed to be informed on these options so they can provide their public leaders with feedback?

Who knows.

Again, North Dakota has very strong transparency laws, but keeping those laws strong requires vigilance.

The Legislature has acquiesced to requests to narrow public access to information in recent sessions, but it may be time to go the other way and remind all levels of government that openness is a top priority.

Public servants who are obstinate in their duty to do their work in the open aren't qualified to serve the public.