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Von Pinnon: Open records laws should also apply to lawmakers

When a North Dakota legislator wants to dig into a year's worth of written correspondence of a university president, he files an open records request, obliging the president to turn over what he has.

But if that same university president wanted to dig into even a day's worth of correspondence from that same state lawmaker, the legislator could outright ignore that request.

That's right.

If you are a public teacher, police officer, highway worker, jailer or college custodian, your written correspondence related to work falls under North Dakota's very public-friendly open records laws.

But lawmakers, the very people whose role is to craft the rules we live by, have exempted themselves from those very same laws.

The exemption for state lawmakers was presumably designed so they could freely correspond with each other on pending legislation and so the notes they receive from their constituents don't end up in the hands of others.

But what harm can come from the public knowing what lawmakers are doing or what they are hearing from constituents?

Certainly legislators can turn over correspondence if they wish but, in our experience, they rarely do when asked.

When news broke last week that an unnamed state legislator had sought a year's worth of written correspondence from a bunch of higher ed officials in the state - including the college presidents - many readers asked us why we couldn't determine which legislator made the open records request through the Legislative Council, the Legislature's research arm.

We did ask several likely legislators if they made the request. All said they did not or did not return our calls. We could not identify the requestor because the request was made through the Legislative Council - essentially the middle man - and the council's attorney also cited an attorney-client privacy privilege.

Had the legislator's request been made through another non-lawmaker agency or otherwise public official, we could have sought it and likely found it on the receiving end.

There are many still-unanswered questions in the ongoing story about missing emails from the computer of North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani. We will continue to seek answers, some of which undoubtedly will be found in records.

North Dakotans are truly lucky to have open records and open meetings laws that bring a high level of transparency and trust to most areas of government and public service.

The state's transparency laws were long-ago crafted and then fiercely protected and refined over the years by citizens intent on keeping the ideals of our nation's founders and protectors. Few states can say the same today.

Legislators should do the right thing and remove the open records exemptions for themselves.

They should hold themselves accountable with the very same standards they expect of others.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579, or on Twitter at @inforumed

Matthew Von Pinnon

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum.

(701) 241-5579