AS I SEE IT
By Neal A. Shipman
North Dakota, through its Sunshine Laws, has a long and proud history of ensuring that the state’s citizens have ready access to know what government agencies and officials are doing. Which means that all government meetings, with the exception of those that are very narrowly identified or are conducted under executive session for very specific and publicly identified purpose, are open to the public.
And by public, that means that any citizen or news agency can sit in on any these meetings to listen to the discussions and/or actions taken during those public meetings.
To be honest, most government meetings are pretty boring. But that doesn’t mean that important discussions and decisions don’t happen at those meetings. It just means that more often than not, other than maybe a reporter or two in attendance, those governmental bodies go about their work without anyone knowing what is being discussed or decided.
But the right of the state’s citizens to know what is happening during those public meetings took a big hit last week as the North Dakota Senate passed S.B. 2152, which would make secret the applications of every person seeking any public job in the entire state - from a janitor at city hall to a school teacher, from a police officer to a North Dakota college. Quite literally, S.B. 2152 could result in hundreds, if not thousands, of closed meetings across the state because every time any public body wanted to discuss applicants for a government position they would be authorized to do so in executive session.
Proponents of S.B. 2152 including Ed Schafer, who has served as North Dakota’s governor and as the University of North Dakota’s interim president, say that by keeping the list of applicants off the table, it would attract a wider pool of candidates for government jobs.
Opponents including the North Dakota Newspaper Association, on the other hand, called the legislation “the biggest blow to government transparency in years, perhaps ever.”
The logic behind the introduction of S.B. 2152 is pretty clear. There are those in government who want to keep as much business that they do out of the view of the public.
And that is a shame. After all, everything that happens in government - be it from hiring employees to formulating policies - should be readily accessible to the citizens of the state.
Hopefully, the state’s House of Representatives will see the threat that S.B. 2152 poses to North Dakota Sunshine Laws differently than their colleagues in the Senate and kill this bill.
There is no reason to gut the state’s open meetings and open records laws that have served the state’s citizens so well.