Tracker Pixel for Entry

​Improving North Dakota’s open records policy

by Rob Port | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Say Anything | August 26th, 2015

North Dakota is generally a very transparent state, due in no small part to open records laws that are very simple and very broad.

But there is room for improvement.

Case in point, three years ago North Dakota State University women’s athletics director Lynn Dorn was suspended without pay for some sort of inappropriate behavior involving a student. Dorn has since moved on, but the public has never been made privy to what happened.

According to NDSU’s lawyers, the specifics of Dorn’s misconduct can’t be released because of federal student privacy laws. Some observers (including this one) think that’s bunk.

"In the university setting, literally every employee would have something to do with students at one time or another," North Dakota Newspaper Association attorney Jack McDonald told the Grand Forks Herald about the Dorn situation. "It's a stretch to say, in most instances, that because you're investigating a university official, it's closed by FERPA."

[FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974) is federal legislation in the United States that protects the privacy of students' personally identifiable information (PII). The act applies to all educational institutions that receive federal funds. Source: searchsecurity.techtarget.com]

This problem with the universities using their lawyers to keep the public in the dark has been addressed by the legislature. Starting this year the university’s lawyers now work under the Attorney General.

We can do more, though, and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has appointed a task force of individuals (including myself) to review our state’s existing laws and identify areas for possible reforms.

The way the law works now is very simple. If you want a piece of information from any level of state government you need only ask for it. You can make your request in person, via letter, by email, with a fax, or with a phone call.

The entity you’re requesting records from is then required by law to give you a response. They either must turn the information over to you or they must deny your request citing the specific statute allowing them to deny it.

If you disagree with the reasoning for a denied request, you have the right to request an opinion from the Attorney General’s office to determine whether or not your request was denied lawfully.

There are some loopholes, however, and some of our public servants have unfortunately learned how to exploit them.

For one thing, the entity you request records from does not have to create a record for you. This means that if you ask for, say, a list of homes in your city painted red, the city doesn’t have to create that list for you. They only have to provide it if such a list already exists.

The reason for this loophole is obvious -- we don’t want our public servants sent on endless wild goose chases by gadflies -- but it can leave a member of the public who might not be familiar with all the reports and lingo of governance fishing in the dark.

Another problem are the fees public entities are allowed to charge for records. Generally public entities can charge you $25 per hour for accessing records for you (the first hour is free), and $0.25 per copy. Sometimes these fees can be inflated as a way to dissuade a member of the public from obtaining a record.

I was once told by an attorney for NDSU that accessing some emails from President Dean Bresciani’s account would cost me over $2,000. Thinking that price was ludicrous I requested an opinion from the AG’s office, and it turns out I was right. I ultimately got the records for free.

Yet that situation revealed another problem, which is that getting an opinion from the AG’s office simply takes too long. NDSU ultimately had to give me the emails I requested, but the process took six months and the consequences for the university, which tried to block my request, was little more than some bad press.

How open is a record, really, if your access to it can be blocked illegally for half a year or more with zero consequences for those doing the blocking?

Stenehjem’s task force will meet for the first time in September. These are the issues I hope to to bring up to the other members, and I believe we can find ways to address them for the sake of a better informed public.

RECENTLY IN

Say Anything

Tracker Pixel for Entry SkootersPlumbing Tracker Pixel for Entry LionsWay2

Recently in:

FARGO – The day Tiffany Abentroth stood up before a thousand and more Trump-loving Republicans, she knew the GOP blessing was not within reach. She wasn’t even nervous about it. Still a Marine Corps staff sergeant, she squared…

Last week we talked about my lack of photographic skills and then what the heck am I going to do with all of these bad pictures that I take. Storage options for those pictures continues this week:RAIDAnother storage option is a…

Wednesday, April 25, 9pm-howlingThe Aquarium, 226 Broadway, FargoYou may have heard their sick beats on 95.9 lpfm on Friday's from 5pm-midnight. Now you can dance your pants off in the presence of the minds behind ”The Riverside…

According to Greek mythology Hades is to blame for the Earth’s mournful state of winter. The story involves Persephone the goddess of nature and Hades the god of the underworld in a classic caper of obsession, abduction, and…

Does That Old-Time Religion Signal The End Of Rational Thought?An incident about gender identity in the Maryland Legislature last week magnified a microcosm of what we are going through in the United States about religion in the…

FARGO - A collection of memories from High Plains Reader's annual Cocktail Showdown. Participants were judged on creativity, flavor, and presentation; and this year we added a new category. Like years before, each establishment was…

All About Food

​Oysters

by HPR Staff

By Ben Myhrebenmyhre35@gmail.comAs a North Dakota native, raw oysters are just not a food staple that I think about. We are about as far from the coasts as we can get and we have a backyard full of tasty local cuisine, like walleye…

Record Store Day is all about music artists and fans celebrating “the culture of the independently owned record store.” A variety of unique and special releases are pressed for Record Store Day and those are only distributed to…

Leveraging whatever name-brand clout it might carry with the target demographic, “Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare” -- the onscreen title for the pre and post-credit sequences -- won’t make the kind of impact previously enjoyed by…

There are so many cool places to be in Austin during the South by Southwest Festival -- like the Flatstock Market, which displays the works of the world’s top gig poster artists. The show features posters of varying styles,…

By Nathan Roybardsdream@gmail.comYou are absolutely right. The title is not “To be or not to be” from the famous Shakespeare soliloquy in "Hamlet." I won’t be talking about Shakespeare particularly. I will expound the…

Fargo has its share of people who are passionate about stand-up comedy, even if the success of clubs devoted to it has been mixed. Despite the fact we have seen places like Courtney’s Comedy Club and Level 2 Comedy Club close…

I consider myself an avid wine drinker, but I recently found out there are more than 10,000 varieties of grapes, and about 1,500 of those are used to make commercial wines. I don’t know about you, but I could probably name about…

A few months ago, I was introduced to the concept of probiotics and how they work with our bodies. I would never have guessed the change that occurred after their introduction into my system.I always considered myself a fairly…

By Melissa Martin melissamartincounselor@live.com “I’m sorry” are two vital words to be used in relationships because human beings are imperfect people living in imperfect environments. Ask yourself the following…

Calm was the day in late JulyAnd bright was the sun across the skyBut inside his chest the calm had brokenGovernor Sinner had started croakin’.I laughed the first time I read that, and I’m still laughing every time I think…