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Jack Zaleski: Could be a lively ethics discussion

As sure as a cry in the wilderness, a North Dakota lawmaker will introduce an ethics commission bill at the 2017 Legislature. And as sure as no one heard previous cries in the political wilderness, new ethics legislation will go unheard, or at best disregarded. Does that record mean North Dakota government is an ethical wilderness? Or does it mean – as most legislators in the majority believe – that North Dakota’s political class is so pure of heart it doesn’t need an ethical watchdog?

Those contradictory views will be among topics discussed Tuesday (March 22) at The Northern Plains Ethics Institute Spring 2016 panel discussion. Starting at 7 p.m. in the Prairie Rose Room in the Memorial Union on the campus of North Dakota State University, the session is open to faculty, scholars, students and community members. The question on the agenda: “Whether the state of North Dakota should create an ethics commission.”

NPEI staff have assembled an impressive panel:

Dina Butcher, Bismarck, was chairwoman of North Dakotans against Measure 1, the so-called personhood amendment that was defeated by voters, and vice president of WT Butcher and Associates. She’s an activist Republican and has been among the state’s strongest voices for women’s rights.

John Olsrud, Bismarck, is former director of the North Dakota Legislative Council. Retired, he has remained engaged and active in civic life and political analysis, and has been a close observer of the Legislature for decades.

John Stern, Fargo, is former owner of Strauss Clothing, a respected community leader and a student of politics and social trends. His family operated a multigenerational business until a few months ago, affording him a valuable perspective on North Dakota history and heritage.

NPEI Director Dennis Cooley asked me to moderate the panel and I accepted.

Under the broad category, the ethics issue will be broken down into several questions, including:

  • Does the state need an ethics commission?
  • What would it look like?
  • What are the roadblocks to forming a commission?
  • Do taxpayers want an ethics commission?
  • Would legislators face a conflict of interest in creating a commission?

Panelists will address those particulars and others, and add whatever they think will enhance the discussion. After opening presentations, panelists will take questions and respond to comments from audience members. As moderator, it will be my job to keep it – well – moderate.

Cooley and his team at NPEI tried but were unable to sign a single North Dakota legislator to be on the panel. That’s too bad. Lawmakers have had the issue on their plate for the past several sessions, and likely will again. Maybe a few of them will take time from their busy schedules to attend Tuesday night’s event. Their perspectives could be enlightening – or not.

That’s 7 p.m. on the NDSU campus. Come on out. Could be a lively discussion.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at or (701) 241-5521.