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Published August 12 2013

Forum editorial: Shine light on email requests

Whether the search of North Dakota higher education emails produces smoking guns, legislators who are pressing the probe through the Legislative Council should identify themselves. They are dealing with weighty public matters. They are elected public persons. They have an obligation to stand up straight in the light of public and media scrutiny, and explain the why and wherefore of their actions.

Defenders of the anonymous legislator or legislators note that anyone who makes an open records request can remain anonymous. Not really. The loophole is who pays the cost of ferretting out emails and who pays for preparing transcripts for the requesting party. Legislators don’t pay. Everyone else (including The Forum, which has made several open records requests) gets a bill. The billing document is a public record. So, the declaration that “anyone” can make an anonymous email request is, in practice, phony.

The legislative demand for higher ed emails focuses on the run up to the sacking of Chancellor Hamid Shirvani. Apparently, the few lawmakers who were on the losing side of that controversy are sore losers. Fans of the discredited chancellor, who also frequently fall into the camp of reliably irrational higher education antagonists, seem to think they can dig up dirt on campus presidents, most of whom made no secret they did not like the chancellor’s modus operandi.

That being said, reviewing emails and other correspondence can have value when it provides North Dakotans with good information about their public institutions. But when the process becomes a narrow and self-serving legislative vendetta, the purpose of open records is perverted. When lawmakers misuse their power in a punitive way, they violate their oath of public service and insult the spirit of the open records law.

Legislators pushing the council to find higher ed emails should come forward – and maybe even volunteer to pay at least a portion of the estimated $100,000 their actions will cost taxpayers. They should be able to make the argument the expenditure is worth it, and that their cause is noble.

Or maybe not…

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.