FARGO - If their written correspondence is any indication, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley have had little to say about the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The Forum made a public records request seeking all communications, including emails and text messages, to and from Dalrymple or Wrigley that contained at least one of more than two dozen terms related to the protest, such as pipeline, tribe, sacred, artifact, camp, Morton County, Dakota Access and Standing Rock.
In response, the governor's office turned over a total of seven documents. Only two of them were emails, both of which were sent to Wrigley.
One document was an Aug. 19 executive order in response to Morton County declaring an emergency. Another document was an Oct. 25 letter from the governor urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue a controversial easement required for the oil pipeline to cross under the Missouri River. The three other documents were news releases regarding the protests.
Jeff Zent, the governor's communications director, said the limited number of documents that surfaced in The Forum's request isn't representative of how engaged Dalrymple and Wrigley are in dealing with the protests, some of which have boiled over into violent clashes between protesters and police.
State Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, recently said in a Facebook video post that he often hears from residents who say Dalrymple, whose term expires next month, is "checked out." Zent refuted this notion, saying the governor attends briefings on an almost daily basis with the Morton County Sheriff's Office and the North Dakota Highway Patrol, agencies that have been responding to the protests.
"When you're talking about this protest and all that we're having to do to maintain public safety, it's too important for email," he said.
Zent said the governor and lieutenant governor have state email accounts but seldom use them. Both men prefer to do state business through in-person meetings and phone calls, he said.
"Email can be misconstrued. The governor feels it is not conducive to his communication needs," he said. "You don't reach a meeting of the minds through email."
Dalrymple and Wrigley both declined, through Zent, to be interviewed for this story.
The scope of The Forum's public records request was from Aug. 1 through Nov. 2, the day the request was submitted to the governor's office. The office initially handed over five documents on Nov. 16, and then the two emails sent to Wrigley were released on Wednesday, Nov. 23.
One of the emails is from Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard, who forwarded to Wrigley a statement from federal agencies on an Oct. 9 court decision regarding the pipeline. The other email is from a Morton County prosecutor thanking Wrigley for his public support of law enforcement.
Bonnie Storbakken, the governor's legal counsel, said state law generally requires the governor's office to retain communications like emails and text messages for four years. But only communications of substance, such as executive orders, are archived, while transitory communications, such as arrangements for meetings, are deleted, she said.
"People might think that we're intentionally eliminating emails to avoid a public review. No, that's just not the case," Zent said.
Zent added that Dalrymple and Wrigley are not intentionally limiting their use of email or text messaging to dodge public scrutiny, nor are they using vague terms or coded language to discuss the protests in correspondence. He said the governor and lieutenant governor do not conduct state business through text messages or through personal email accounts, both of which are subject to North Dakota's open records law.
For months, protesters have camped out near the proposed Missouri River crossing of the four-state, 1,172-mile pipeline, just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The Sioux and their supporters are concerned the $3.8 billion pipeline could contaminate the tribe's source of drinking water and that construction will destroy cultural artifacts.
Becker posted his video Nov. 17, saying he's fed up with the protests. In the video, he asked Dalrymple and other state leaders to be more visible in their efforts to resolve the protests.
"Please show us that you're not checked out," Becker said. "Please show us what's going on."
The next day, Dalrymple and law enforcement officials held a news conference where the governor voiced frustration over the federal government's inaction on the pipeline. On Wednesday, Dalrymple, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Kevin Cramer, all Republicans, signed a letter pressing President Barack Obama to order the Corps to quickly grant the easement for the pipeline crossing.