Our view: Government isn't as open as perceived
Congratulations to the following area towns: Edinburg, N.D.; Hoople, N.D.; Petersburg, N.D.; Lake Bronson, Minn.; Grygla, Minn.; and Beltrami, Minn.
Residents in those towns can be assured that basic government functions are being appropriately handled.
However, residents in Aneta, N.D.; Forest River, N.D.; Middle River, Minn.; and Brooks, Minn., should begin to question just what is going on with their local government.
In June, the Herald conducted an experiment, based on these questions: Are the smallest of this region’s towns adequately keeping city documents? Are they making those documents available to anyone who asks?
It stems from trouble last year in Roosevelt, Minn., where a newspaper reporter was involved in a confrontation with a city employee and an elected official. As the Herald began covering that story, we requested certain public documents; they never arrived, and we were later told they don’t exist.
Thus began our audit, which included selecting 10 small towns – in the presence of a notary, to ensure true random selection – from the area to check their records.
Remember: State law in both Minnesota and North Dakota dictates that anyone can request any public document at any time and expect to be able to see it in a timely manner. We sent our request for various documents four months ago.
But two towns – Forest River, N.D., and Middle River, Minn. – never responded to repeated requests. Two more towns – Aneta, N.D., and Brooks, Minn. – did answer, but flat-out told us they would not provide the documents. In Aneta, a clerk told us the council decided it would not “be of any value for us to send them over” and in Brooks, a clerk said the council “would just as soon have me not do it.”
So much for open government.
We can understand delays, and especially in small towns where staffing is scant.
In the case of all four delinquent towns, the Herald made numerous attempts, via telephone and email, to track down these records. If towns tell us now that they never received the request, that also is unforgivable, since contact information for the responsible city officials should be posted and up to date.
Our patience especially runs thin with those clerks and councils that simply shrugged and chose not to comply with our request.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem feels North Dakota is doing well with open government and open records. Perhaps to him, that’s so. He suggests the Herald file a request for an opinion on those towns that didn’t provide the records.
We will. But considering it’s already been four months, and considering it likely will take another four months for an answer, we have serious doubts that true “open government” exists in many places.
Our concern is that open government isn’t as good as many state leaders perceive it. This is not a knock on the attorney general himself, but a reminder that from the capitol, all probably appears well.
But today, we’re not convinced it is.