Monday, March 19, 2012
by Rob Port
Transparency laws exist to ease public access to government records. Abiding by them is not something that is done at the convenience of the government. Rather, the government is to convenience the information-seeking public by making the access of information efficient and cost-effective.
Nobody wants to see government workers needlessly inconvenienced, of course, but when members of the public make good-faith requests for information ,it’s their convenience that ought to be of ultimate concern.
Unfortunately, in ruling on a recent open records complaint, North Dakota’s Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem did not apply that standard.
On September 22nd and 23rd of 2011 the North Dakota State University Technology & Research Park held its annual meeting in Minneapolis, MN (which coincided conveniently with the NDSU Bison/Minnesota Gophers football game). The TRP has been of some interest to me given that the organization occupies a somewhat shadowy corner of our state government. They have to abide by open records laws, but they claim that aside from that they are a “private” organization and so need not abide by state laws governing the use of revenues for expensive meals, high-end alcohol and perks for employees like director (and state senator) Tony Grindberg’s country club membership.
They claim this despite the organization having been planned for by university officials, incorporated by NDSU’s legal counsel, built on university land and governed by university officials.
Because I was interested in these issues concerning the TRP, I was going to attend their annual meeting which, by law, is open to the public. But how can a meeting held by a North Dakota state organization in Minneapolis be considered open to the public?
The North Dakota public doesn’t live in Minneapolis. Most of us wouldn’t consider a meeting held hundreds of miles from the borders of North Dakota to be open to the North Dakota public.
I filed an open meetings complaint with the Attorney General’s office stating that an open meeting which required citizens to travel for hours, and hundreds of miles, didn’t meet the standard for openness set out in state law.
Unfortunately, when AG Wayne Stenehjem ruled on the complaint, he sided with the TRP. According to his published opinion, “The Research Park’s annual meeting was accessible to the public in compliance with N.D.C.C. § 44-04-19 even though it was held in Minneapolis, Minnesota.”
What was Stenehjem’s reasoning? The open meeting was accessible to the public because it was convenient for the TRP officials to hold their meeting in Minneapolis.
“[A]ccording to the Research Park, in addition to advancing the mission of the Research Park, the location of the annual meeting was practical for speakers and board members,” reads the opinion.
So because it was convenient for the TRP’s officials to get together while they were all enjoying a football weekend in Minneapolis, the meeting was deemed “accessible” by the public. That most of the public wasn’t in Minneapolis that weekend apparently matters not.
Again, state transparency laws ought to be exercised for the benefit of the public, not the benefit of the government. If this is the standard for open meetings laws in North Dakota, then one could easily see state organizations holding their “open meetings” during conventions or junkets out of state and far from the eyes of the taxpayers.
Rob Port is an NDPC Government Transparency & Accountability Policy Fellow.