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Forum editorial: Reject bill that would invite secrecy

North Dakota has a proud tradition of supporting open government. We have strong laws to protect the public's right to know by mandating open records and open meetings. These laws serve to keep government transparent and accountable. They help to guard against government actions that are excessive or ill considered. They've become part of the political culture at the state and local levels of government—levels of government that are closest to the people they serve. And they've worked well.

But open government is under assault in North Dakota. Legislation that would gut North Dakota's open records and open meetings laws got a favorable reception in a hearing before a committee, where most bad legislation dies a deserved death. Senate Bill 2152, introduced by Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks, would make secret the applications of every person seeking a public job in the state, until finalists are named. Any job—teacher, county road superintendent, superintendent of schools or president of a public college or university. Government is run by people, and maintaining an open hiring process is critical to keeping government exposed to sunlight.

The effect of SB 2152 would be to close hundreds of records that now are open and accessible. It's even worse than that. Discussion of closed records can happen behind closed doors in executive session, causing a proliferation of closed meetings. As we've already noted, The Forum favors keeping confidential only the list of initial applicants for college president or chancellor of the university system. Supporters of that approach argue that North Dakota is missing out on top talent because of the the state's open records laws.

The lists of applicants for college president are usually quite long. But once the list has been culled to select finalists, those names would become public. House Bill 1333, which has passed the House, would do just that. It takes a more reasonable, targeted approach, unlike the indiscriminate shotgun blast that would be delivered by SB 2152. The House bill sensibly defines a finalist as anyone who has been invited for an interview.

There is no reason to gut North Dakota's time-honored and effective open records and open meetings laws, as SB 2152 would do. It's been advocated by a few government insiders, who would like to keep more of their actions free of public scrutiny. That's bad advice, and North Dakota legislators should reject it. There's an old saying: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Let's keep North Dakota a place where the sun shines on government.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.

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