The North Dakota Board of University and School Lands last week adopted new rules on how its commissioner may interact with the media. As reported last week by Forum News Service, the policy was suggested by Gov. Doug Burgum, and came after the commissioner spoke to the media about certain issues associated with the board.
Now, the commissioner must inform members of the board of any “significant” interactions with the media. It also specifies the commissioner cannot make any policy statements to the press on issues before the board until its members have formulated an official position.
The five-member board adopted the new policy in a unanimous vote.
It comes after another North Dakota panel, the State Investment Board, suggested creating a new policy about talking to the media. State Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfread, a member of the board, reacted strongly, saying it could have “a chilling effect” on public officials’ interactions with the media.
Good for Godfread for having the sense to rebel against these methods of stifling public interaction and information. We need more state leaders like him. Further, we hope other boards and panels will recognize how strict media policies actually reduce transparency, even as members claim otherwise.
For example, Troy Seibel of the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office, earlier this year wondered how “not responding to the media is somehow not transparent.”
Here’s an easy answer: Because if a commissioner or member of some public entity feels that something isn’t right or that some new direction is needed with a public entity or public money, that person should have the opportunity to say it frankly, candidly and at their convenience.
Allowing others to help craft a response — or to vote on a unified response — stifles true feelings and opinions and further limits the dialogue people can hear about their business.
Seibel notes that board meetings and records are open to the public. That’s true. But commissioners and board members’ true feelings about important subjects are not known to the public, at least until we ask.
As an example, consider the Legislature. Though the proceedings and records are open, the conversations that precede a vote are usually the most important part of the process. Even members of the same party have differing feelings on issues, and through individual interviews, those opinions become public and part of the statewide dialogue.
Imagine the Legislature adopting a policy that declares lawmakers, or a party leader, cannot individually discuss bills. Imagine a scenario in which an entire party must craft a unified response.
When you have questions for your state lawmaker, or school board member or city council member, do you want the unified — and edited — board response, or their actual thoughts on the matter?
These public boards must be open and transparent in every way. Instead, some are crafting ways to limit access and information. And besides, it just looks bad.
It always baffles us when people strive to serve on a public board or public entity and then, once there, they circle the wagons around themselves.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Grand Forks Herald.