'From nothing': North Dakota officials prepare to appoint ethics commission

042719.N.FNS.ENDSESSION2 John Hageman photo
North Dakota Republican Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, right, listens while Gov. Doug Burgum speaks during a bill signing ceremony at the state Capitol Friday, April 26, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Top North Dakota officials charged with forming a new panel to oversee ethical standards in state government say they're looking for applicants without an political agenda, as the implementation of last year's ballot measure enters what observers see as a crucial phase.

Gov. Doug Burgum's office is accepting applications for a new ethics commission through May 24 and officials hope to have members selected by July 1, the start of a new budget cycle. About 30 people applied as of Wednesday, May 15, including former state lawmakers Eliot Glassheim, David Drovdal, Duane DeKrey and Tom Trenbeath.

The five commissioners will be chosen by consensus agreement of the governor and the Senate's majority and minority leaders.

The panel was created with last year's passage of Measure 1, which etched new ethics and transparency rules into the state constitution. Supporters said the measure would improve accountability in state government, but opponents criticized it as poorly written.

Only four other states lack an ethics commission, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures .


Lawmakers have already approved an implementation bill that budgeted about $517,000 and two full-time positions for the commission in the 2019-21 biennium. The Office and Management Budget is responsible for assigning office space for the panel in the Bismarck area.

Though ballot measure backers denounced the implementation bill as an unconstitutional effort to water down what voters approved, the constitution still allows the commission to write rules on transparency, corruption, elections and lobbying as well as investigate allegations of wrongdoing.

"It's going to matter a lot who is appointed and how they are able to work together and what they stand for," said Ellen Chaffee, vice president of the pro-Measure 1 group North Dakotans for Public Integrity. "They will be creating their own culture from nothing."

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said commissioners should be "looking out for the best interests of the state of North Dakota. Period."

"I don't care what political background they have, but that they are open-minded and respect other people's views," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, likewise said commissioners should make decisions without a partisan bent. Burgum's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the Republican governor didn't want to suggest any preferable qualities that may deter people from applying.

The constitution does bar certain people from serving on the commission, including lobbyists, political party officials and those who hold statewide elected or appointed office, according to the governor's office.

Greg Stites, an attorney hired by North Dakotans for Public Integrity to lobby lawmakers last session, said developing a new "code of ethics" for state officials will be among the commission's first priorities but warned it "isn't going to happen overnight."


Stites applied to be a member of the commission, which he likened to a fourth branch of government that's on equal footing with the executive and legislative wings. He predicted it would meet at least monthly but wouldn't be a full-time job for commissioners.

Greater North Dakota Chamber president and CEO Arik Spencer, who helped lead the charge against Measure 1, said the state's lobbyists lawmakers need more "certainty" about the new ethics rules. He said the commissioners will "have their work cut out for them" in laying the initial groundwork.

DeKrey said he would bring a broad perspective to the commission as a former Republican lawmaker and lobbyist. He's now the general manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, which is a water supply project group made up of more than two dozen member counties.

Though he stopped short of calling the commission unnecessary, DeKrey said he didn't see overt ethical violations while he was in office.

"I think we've got a pretty clean, very open Legislature," he said. "The people obviously voted it in so there must be some concerns out there and if (this) allays those concerns then it's a good thing."

Chaffee said she's looking forward to an interim legislative study of the constitution's new ethics requirements that will include commissioner input.

"This is a very critical time," she said.


Petition rally
Alex Hilzendeger, left, and Norton Lovold hold a banner in front of boxes of petitions outside the state capitol in Bismarck TOM STROMME/Bismarck Tribune

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