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Omdahl: Transparency Has Become the Magic Word

By Staff | Apr 10, 2015

Transparency has become such a prominent part of our vocabulary lately that it reminds me of the old Groucho Marx TV show when a contestant saying the magic word was awarded a $100 bill.

In the recent Publishers’ Quarterly, the publication of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, several self-congratulatory articles appeared stressing how the print media beat back legislative proposals to weaken the open records/meetings statutes. None of the proposals were passed and transparency won the day.

Another legislative proposal creating an ethics commission was also a transparency issue. It was not so fortunate. It was defeated with the argument that in a small state like North Dakota everyone knows everyone so there are no conflicts of interest to be exposed.

Ask Democratic Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ). He has been charged by the Justice Department with corruption for facilitating the prosperity of a friend. He said they have been friends for a long time and the favors were friendship and not corruption.

In an exhaustive study of ethics enforcement, the Center for Public Integrity ranked the track record of states for dealing with unethical practices. North Dakota was one of seven states to be awarded an “F”.

The Center argues that most ethics commissions are toothless tigers. Not only are they appointed by the politicians they are supposed to monitor but the agencies are also without funds or staff needed to do anything.

There is an unanswered open meetings question involving majority caucuses in the legislature. The legislature has exempted it’s majority caucuses from the open meeting law even though majority caucuses do constitute the quorum of a public body.

Executive branch committees, the Board of Higher Education and local governing boards cannot call majority caucuses to do their business in secret.

On another issue, some of the gay-rights advocates probably think Governor Jack Dalrymple was not being transparent when he waited until after anti-gay legislation was defeated before he said he thought it was unfortunate. They think he should have spoken for the measure before the vote in order to influence the outcome.

That would have been a mistake. If the governor had launched a public campaign for the measure, he would have established a bad precedent of executive interference in the legislative process. Mason’s rules for policymaking bodies are fairly strict about outside influences on the legislative process.

Gubernatorial support or opposition to legislative proposals would eventually lead to violation of Article 5, Section 10 of the state constitution which, in summary, warns the governor about influencing legislation.

If the governor had weighed in, all sorts of interest groups would be trying to get the governor to oppose or support all sorts of legislation. The principle of separation of powers would be degraded in the process.

The lack of transparency got Indiana Governor Mike Pence and his state legislature in serious trouble when they claimed that the religious rights law was not intended to legalize discrimination of gays.

Transparency is certainly lacking in the political system, especially when it comes to campaign funds. It is now possible to launder money through all sorts of political action committees, thereby hiding the source of funds that could lead to influencing government decisions. Really, there is no other reason for social and economic groups to contribute other than to influence public policy.

Unfortunately, there is not enough space to discuss the lack of transparency in our political, social and economic systems. Even with our open meetings and open records laws, transparency is still in short supply in some areas.

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