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Janell Cole, Published January 15 2009

Panel backs keeping names private

BISMARCK – A North Dakota Senate committee has recommended passage of a bill making state college president applicants’ names secret until semifinalists are named.

The Senate Education Committee voted 4-1 on Wednesday to back Senate Bill 2087. The bill now goes to the full Senate for a vote.

The committee acted after testimony from the North Dakota University System chancellor that the state open records law is putting a brake on the number and type of applicants willing to come forward during college and university presidential searches.

The state Board of Higher Education wants the law changed so that only the semifinalists’ names ever become public. Applicants who do not become semifinalists wouldn’t have their names disclosed.

“Sitting presidents (of other colleges) and other individuals in high-profile (positions) are reluctant to apply” for North Dakota presidential openings, Chancellor Bill Goetz told the committee in Wednesday morning’s bill hearing.

Under the state constitution’s open records clause, any application materials for state jobs are public, as are all state records that have not been specifically closed by the Legislature.

But an official with the North Dakota Newspaper Association said there’s no evidence the board has been unable to attract enough qualified candidates to choose suitable presidents and that such a law defies the state’s open government tradition.

Roger Bailey, executive director of the newspaper group, said the board’s argument seems to “repudiate the quality of the recently selected presidents.”

Bev Nielson, assistant to the executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association, said she sat in on Wednesday’s hearing for SB 2087 because that organization is interested in similar legislation.

In the committee vote, those favoring the bill were the chairman, Sen. Layton Freborg, R-Underwood; Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo; Sen. Gary Lee, R-Casselton, and Sen. JoNell Bakke, D-Grand Forks. The only one voting against the bill was Sen. Ryan Taylor, D-Towner.

Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. She can be reached at (701) 224-0830 or forumcap@btinet.net