ND bill would end anonymity for lawmakers' open records requests
BISMARCK - A bill introduced into the state Senate could spell an end to anonymous and potentially expensive open records requests by lawmakers. Senate Bill 2222, presented to the appropriations committee Wednesday, calls for state agencies to fo...
BISMARCK – A bill introduced into the state Senate could spell an end to anonymous and potentially expensive open records requests by lawmakers.
Senate Bill 2222, presented to the appropriations committee Wednesday, calls for state agencies to forward all open records requests from lawmakers to the Legislative Council, complete with the names of the requestor and the estimated cost to fulfill the request.
Since the Legislative Council is a public body, the requests become open records, the bill points out.
SB 2222 also sets an open records allowance for lawmakers.
If the total cost of public records requests by a member of the House or Senate tops $5,000 in a biennium, the lawmaker can either pay the extra cost without using public funds, or must ask legislative management to direct the Legislative Council to seek the records at no charge.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, said the bill will bring more transparency and accountability to the work done by lawmakers.
“I don’t think that we should give preferential treatment to legislators because of their job title,” Flakoll said.
He said there have been several open records requests in recent years that either have been, or could have been, very expensive.
“We have agencies that might be spending a significant chunk of their budget to meet an open records request,” Flakoll said.
He said the measure will put a limit on requests to avoid bills that could run into the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, while giving lawmakers a way to get expensive records requests fulfilled – if they get a green light from legislative managers.
“This is the only place in North Dakota where one person, one legislator, can expend taxpayer dollars without getting a broader approval,” Flakoll said. “So, I just think that it helps protect the taxpayers’ interest.”
Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, a co-sponsor of the bill, said lawmakers shouldn’t be afraid to operate in the sunshine.
“The real purpose of the bill is, if somebody is going to ask for all this information to be put out, they shouldn’t be afraid to put their name on it,” he said.
“We don’t want them to not ask for it (open records). And very seldom will it cost you that much money that anyone would ever pay” out of their own pocket, Carlson said.
He said there have been too many anonymous records requests that have forced state agencies to do a lot of work, “and it really doesn’t amount to anything.”
“Go ahead and do it. Just tell us who it is,” Carlson said.
Other sponsors of SB 2222 are Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, Rep. Thomas Beadle, R-Fargo, and Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck.
Telephone messages seeking comment from two lawmakers involved in open records searches in the past couple of years, Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, and Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, were not returned.
Skarphol told The Forum in a 2013 interview that he was one of the lawmakers who made what had been anonymous open records requests for emails of the state’s public university leaders, including North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani.
Those requests were tied to a controversy surrounding the buyout of the contract of former higher education Chancellor Hamid Shirvani.
More recently, Kasper made a series of far-ranging open records requests from the Department of Public Instruction for Information on the state’s move to adopt Common Core standards in K-12 education.
A DPI spokesman estimated the requests, many of which went back six to eight years, might have yielded a truck or semi load of documents, while a former lawmaker said the work involved in the search and copying the records could have run up a six-figure price tag.
Kasper later withdrew the formal requests and said he would work more informally with DPI to get the information he sought.