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Port: North Dakota's ethics commissioners are afraid to let you watch their meetings

These doyens of government transparency and accountability are afraid that making recordings of their meetings and their email addresses available online, where the press and the public can easily access them, might put them at risk of identity theft. I'm not joking.

North Dakota ethics commission
Members of North Dakota's Ethics Commission are Paul Richard, Ward Koeser, Cynthia Lindquist, Ron Goodman and David Anderson. Assistant Attorney General Allyson Hicks is the board's legal counsel.
Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune
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MINOT, N.D. — North Dakota's new ethics commission doesn't want to be transparent with you, the public.

This board of bureaucrats, which wasn't elected and is accountable to nobody yet is seeking to appropriate to itself vast powers to inhibit the authority of those we do elect (more on that in a moment), balked at the idea of putting even its members' email addresses online.

This happened at Wednesday's meeting where the commissioners also made it clear that they'd rather the public not have easy access to video recordings of their meetings, either.

These self-imagined doyens of government transparency and accountability are afraid that making recordings of their meetings and their email addresses available online, where the press and the public can easily access them, might put them at risk of identity theft.

I'm not joking.

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I wish I was.

As a point of reference, remember that every second of every floor debate at our state Legislature in Bismarck, not to mention all of the committee hearings where lobbyists and private citizens turn out to voice their views on policy, is available on the internet for anyone who might want to watch.

Many governing entities in our state livestream their meetings or at least make full recordings available online shortly after they gavel out. For instance, I was able to post a video of a man who tried to make a citizen's arrest of the Grand Forks City Council at a recent meeting because the City of Grand Forks makes that video available online in various ways .

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Gates and his trust will own the land, and the family who sold it to him will farm it, and that's all legal under the law.

But the ethics commissioners? They don't want to be that transparent, and their "identity theft" excuse is laughable.

Ultimately, at Wednesday's meeting, the commissioners, supposedly our state's new enforcers of transparency, opted to post their videos online, but in a way that is only accessible to those who ask for access, and even then only for 60 days.

After that, the only record the public will have of these meetings is the written minutes.

"It's not perfect, but it does create some safeguards in that (people) have to request it, and it's just not available to the planet, and it won't be maintained in perpetuity," commission executive director Dave Thiele said at the meeting .

Yes, obviously, the important thing is that we safeguard the ethics committee from public scrutiny, and I hope my sarcasm can break through the cloud of smug that permeates this "ethics" commission because I'm laying it on pretty thick.

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On a related note, this tweet from state Rep. Josh Boschee, a Democrat, quoting Ellen Chaffee, the left-wing activist who spearheaded the campaign to create the ethics commission, is kind of hilarious in light of the commission's struggles with its own transparency:

And, by the way, the problem we face is not just that these people are clueless as to how accountable, transparent government ought to operate, it's that they also want to appropriate to themselves powers the voters didn't give them.

Another issue discussed at yesterday's meeting has to do with new conflict of interest policies the commission is developing. Currently, as a part of that draft policy, the ethics commission would appoint itself as a "neutral decisionmaker" that can block elected officials from doing their jobs if the commission detects what it concludes is a conflict of interest.

This is not authority given to the ethics commissioners by the constitutional amendment voters approved creating this commission, but they're giving it to themselves anyway.

Think about that for a moment: An elected official, with a mandate from the people who elected them, might not be able to do the public's business in some instances because a group of people nobody elected, who are accountable to nobody, and who apparently want to operate in the shadows, says they can't.

What are we so afraid of?

Ethics commission 1.jpg
Ethics Commission director David Thiele speaks before members of the House Judiciary Committee on the second day of the 2021 Legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Adam Willis / The Forum

Campaign contributions are a matter of public record in North Dakota.

Every vote and every action taken by a public official, in an official capacity, is also a matter of public record (and often readily available to watch on video, unlike ethics commission meetings).

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If a public official is acting in a way that is inappropriate, the news media and the general public can access this information and make that case. If enough people are persuaded, the offending official can be held accountable at the ballot box.

How is that process improved by allowing a bunch of unaccountable political appointees to preemptively dismiss an elected official from a policy debate?

It's not.

I'd argue that we need more thorough campaign reporting - we live in a digital age, and there is no reason why every penny that flows into and out of a campaign can't be reported to a searchable online database on a weekly basis - but what we don't need are bureaucrats with the power to tell our elected officials when they can and cannot govern.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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