Posted 4/15/09 (Wed)
By Neal A. Shipman
It may have seemed like an inconsequential vote to many people, but the 56-37 vote last Thursday by the North Dakota House of Representatives to defeat SB 2087 was a huge vote to preserve the state’s open records law and to keep the workings of state officials transparent to North Dakotans.
Senate Bill 2087, which was defeated by the House of Representatives, would have made secret names of applicants of people who seek a campus presidency or the job of university system chancellor until a selection committee had narrowed down the applicants by half.
Proponents of SB 2087 had argued that the exemption to the state’s current open records law was needed by the North Dakota Board of Higher Education in order to encourage more applicants to apply for the top jobs at the state’s colleges and universities. It was their belief that presidents of other colleges and universities would be more likely to apply when North Dakota has college president vacancies if they don’t have to fear their interest in a new position will become known to their current employers.
So what’s the big deal if the names of the people seeking to become a president of one of our state colleges or universities is kept secret from the citizens of the state for a period of time or forever?
The answer should be obvious. As taxpayers, the citizens of the state have a right to know what is going on in government. That means taxpayers have a right to know who is applying for government jobs, what state agencies are discussing during meetings, what decisions they are making, and where taxpayers’ money is going.
That is in essence what North Dakota’s Open Records and Open Meetings Law are all about. They were enacted by the North Dakota Legislature to protect the public’s rights to know. Quite simply, North Dakota law, when it comes to open meetings and open records law, provides that all government records and meetings must be open to the public unless a specific statute requires or authorizes a meeting or record to be closed.
In other words, by statute North Dakota government at all levels should be transparent and its actions must be clearly visible to the taxpayers of the state.
Last Thursday, the North Dakota House of Representatives took the side of the people in reaffirming the state’s commitment to keeping government records open and accessible to the people of the state by refusing to grant the Board of Higher Education an exemption to the open records laws by rejecting SB 2087.
Although many North Dakotans may not know of the importance of that vote, they should be. Their rights as citizens were protected.