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Berginski: The public has a right to know

By Staff | Mar 27, 2015

The N.D. House made the right call Monday when it voted, 83-5, to kill a bill that, if passed, would’ve allowed the State Board of Higher Education to keep secret from the public, and the media, any discussion on the hiring or firing of a university system chancellor.

Let me get this straight, so that both you and I don’t get confused. First, the SBHE was found guilty of breaking open records laws when they asked people to leave the room so they could speak with a consultant. Then they wanted to amend open records laws so that any evaluations of university and college presidents, or even audits, aren’t subject to the same laws they broke – even though they are discussed in public meetings. Now they want to change open records laws again by asking to allow chancellor discussions to be held in closed-off, executive sessions – unless the chancellor or candidate wants it public – and it’s supposedly under the belief that board members can be more candid without the media or the public’s eyes watching them. Excuse me, but which part of “open records” do they not seem to get? The “open” part? I jest, but such a move from the SBHE brings up some very serious questions.

Does the board not want the public to know who they’re considering when it comes time to hire a chancellor? Do they not want the public to do a Google search on the man or woman? A simple Google search on the last guy the board had in the chancellor position, Hamid Shirvani, would’ve revealed he was part of an open records violation at California State University Stanislaus. (He and several other officials shredded documents containing details on a Sarah Palin speaking engagement at the university.) A simple Google search would’ve found an essay he wrote in which he compared students wanting to go to college to bratty children wanting ice cream before chores are done. Obviously the board would like to prevent an embarrassment like that from ever happening again, but keeping people in the loop or even giving people some say in the matter seems like a better solution than cutting people off.

There are some things the public doesn’t need to know, like a prospective hiree’s favorite color or shoe size. But if the hiree was involved in a scandal in a previous post, shouldn’t that be known? I know I’d want to know that, not just as someone who works in the media but also as a member of the general public.

Does the board think that things members will say about the man or woman they’re hiring or firing are too sensitive for the public’s ears? I may not care if a representative for Dickinson State uses profanity during a meeting, but the sweet little old lady who lives down the street from me might think that’s conduct unbecoming of a person in that position. Is the board worried that the Jamestown Sun or the Minot Daily News, heck, even the Pierce County Tribune will eat them alive for the things they say in meetings? What is said is a matter of public record, and for the media it is a defense against a libel lawsuit. But in all seriousness, the job of the media is to report and act as a watchdog if a public board does something wrong.

Public records laws serve to aid the media in keeping governing bodies accountable to the public they serve. The SBHE is just as accountable as the legislature they serve; which means open records laws apply to both and they don’t just stop existing or change on a whim.

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