Top ND officials slip up to accommodate secrecy

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Posted 8/15/17 (Tue)

Passing Dreams
By Steve Andrist

Bluster comes easily when you can do it anonymously without having to take the credit or blame for what you have to say.
Witness social media or online blog posts where people uninhibited by anonymity say things they would never say to your face.
The same concept applies sometimes to government deliberations.
People are more apt to speak freely, the argument goes, if no one else, or very few others, are on hand to hear what they’re saying.
How fortunate that we don’t accept that excuse in North Dakota.
Here, we have a long tradition of keeping government open and transparent. We believe in letting people make their point, even argue it, then letting someone else make a counter or complementary point.
When someone suggests discussions should happen behind closed doors so that people aren’t inhibited about speaking freely, we say no.
We don’t do things the easy way; we do them the right way.
We have believed this so strongly that we have encoded the concept in our laws, causing people to think twice any time they’re tempted to take the easy way over the right way.
And yet, sometimes, we slip up. Sometimes, people who should know better, slip up.
Last week, a cadre of our highest-ranking government representatives slipped up when they agreed to closed-door roundtable discussions in Fargo and Grand Forks with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Sen. John Hoeven, Gov. Doug Burgum and Rep. Kevin Cramer, Republicans all, participated in the invitation-only roundtables with Pruitt, excluding both the public and the press.
They said the meetings were secret at the request of Pruitt, who apparently wanted to take the easy way rather than the right way in order to avoid questions by certain constituencies and potential disruption by so-called “parachute journalists” or extremist protesters.
They should have told Pruitt that, in North Dakota, we don’t take the easy road; we take the right road.
After the fact, Hoeven and Cramer even said they were surprised by, and disagreed with, Pruitt’s requirement of secrecy. But that was after they’d already participated in the closed meetings.
The issue becomes even more complicated by reports that Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem participated in the Fargo roundtable. That’s an important point, because together Burgum and Stenehjem make up a quorum of the North Dakota Industrial Commission.
Any time you have a meeting of a quorum of a public body in North Dakota, it’s considered to be a public meeting that must be properly noticed and open to the public.
That means the meeting not only violated the North Dakota way, it may also have violated the law.
In this case, the EPA and the Industrial Commission are dealing with many of the same types of issues, an indication that these meetings likely were directly related to matters on the commission’s table.
One more complication: While “mainstream” media -- those who do their best to report both sides of a story -- were excluded from covering Pruitt’s visits, time was provided for him to appear on broadcast shows that typically favor one side.
You can guess which one.
The implication is that there was interest not in understanding what the people of the state have to say, but in promoting a particular agenda.
That’s wrong. That’s not North Dakota’s value.
Democrats have jumped on the issue, complaining that it represents willful disregard for open government and the law.
But the Republicans should be given the chance to say they slipped up and they’ll do their best not to let it happen again.
Resistance to doing that would speak volumes.