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Berginski: No new exceptions

By Staff | Dec 19, 2014

In a March 2012 op-ed, former Tribune editor Terri Kelly Barta laid down the reason for what are called “sunshine laws”. To quote the column: “People in a free country such as the United States of America have the right to information that directly affects their health and safety. They have the right to know how their government operates and why.”

Every so often the Rugby, Balta and Wolford City Councils, the board of county commissioners and the Rugby Public School District #5 Board of Education run their meeting minutes in the Tribune’s Public Notices section. The importance of them doing so cannot be understated as policy-setters at the municipal and county level, and I applaud them for doing so.

But at the state level, one organization thinks some of its practices should be exempt from sunshine laws. No, no, no, no, and in case I didn’t make it any more plain, NO.

The State Board of Higher Education wants the Legislature to exempt internal draft audits and presidential evaluations from open records laws, arguing the board needs an opportunity to vet the material and that members could speak honestly without fear of their comments being made public, according to a Forum News Service article. Only a final version of the documents in question would be made public, after the review process.

Why does this sound wrong?

First, the board has broken the sunshine laws before. During a late July meeting the board asked anyone in attendance who wasn’t a board member to leave the room so they could meet with a consultant about issues plaguing the board. The discussion the board had with said consultant was recorded and reviewed by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office. Stenehjem found that asking people to leave the meeting created a “chilling effect” on their right to attend. That discussion with a consultant over board issues, and any training on how to rectify said issues amount to public business, and is subject to public record. Asking non-board members to leave was done without statutory authority. That any actions to deny members of the public access to an open meeting is a violation of open records law.

Second, in the North Dakota Century Code, “meeting” is defined by any gathering of a quorum of members of a governing body of a public entity regarding public business. Even if it is in a restaurant or a bar, if any public business is discussed it is a meeting.

Third, the job of a reporter, if he or she is present, is to present the truth. Anything a official says during a meeting can be used by a reporter in a story (if relevant). If the official doesn’t say what he or she means to, then he or she had better clarify it. If what a board member is about to say could be embarrassing to him or her, he or she probably shouldn’t have said it to begin with. A redacted version of “the truth” doesn’t do a reporter any favors if he or she is reporting the ugly truth on meeting proceedings.

Measure 3, if approved, would’ve changed the board structure from the nine-member board it is today to a three-member governor-appointed board. The electorate struck it down because of how it could potentially affect accreditation of the 11 colleges and universities in the North Dakota University System, over which the SBHE has dominion. It wasn’t voted down to give the board a continued green light to break open records laws, and the Legislature shouldn’t have to make new exceptions either.

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