ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Our view: May no darkness come to the work Stenehjem did to add sunshine to the state’s open records efforts

Stenehjem worked to strengthen “sunshine laws” – so called because they bring light and transparency to public records and meetings – and thereby helped transform the state to one of openness and transparency.

Stenehjem ceremony photo by Scott Meyer 2.jpeg
The number 5 is displayed in the windows of the North Dakota Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, honoring the late Wayne Stenehjem, who died on Jan. 28. Stenehjem was North Dakota's attorney general and the number 5 denotes his position in the line of succession in the state. It also was the number of terms he served as attorney general and was on Stenehjem's license plate.
Contributed / Scott Meyer
We are part of The Trust Project.

Wayne Stenehjem’s death last week cast a pall across North Dakota’s government and political landscape.

Stenehjem, 68, died suddenly on Friday, Jan. 28, just a few weeks after announcing he planned to retire at the end of his current term as North Dakota’s attorney general. Gone is a titan of state politics, one who got his political start representing Grand Forks in the Legislature and who eventually won five terms as attorney general.

His accomplishments have been highlighted numerous times in recent days, but his efforts to create transparency in all levels of North Dakota government must be remembered as one of his lasting legacies.

Stenehjem worked to strengthen “sunshine laws” – so called because they bring light and transparency to public records and meetings – and thereby helped transform the state to one of openness and transparency.

As reported earlier this week by Forum News Service, Jack McDonald, an attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, said he believes the state’s open-records and meetings laws are better today, thanks to Stenehjem’s efforts.

ADVERTISEMENT

Stenehjem, McDonald told FNS, enthusiastically approached that aspect of the AG’s job. McDonald noted that Stenehjem would sometimes even have his office reach out to local public entities to remind them to open certain records, thus avoiding a formal opinion.

And, as FNS reported, Stenehjem championed open records policies well before entering the Attorney General’s Office in 2001, often making them a priority during his 24 years in the Legislature.

“It was just one of those issues where he was always there,” McDonald said.

In an interview with the Herald in 2019, Stenehjem discussed his support for open-records laws.

“I think I’ve earned a reputation as a staunch supporter of our open records and open meetings laws because I understand that, first and foremost, these records and meetings belong to the public, not to the people that hold the offices,” Stenehjem said. “... When I issue an opinion that criticizes a government entity, it stings them.”

During that interview, he told the Herald that not all agencies quickly adapted. He said the State Board of Higher Education, for example, had issues in the past and he therefore encouraged members to attend a class on open meetings and open records laws.

When a record or meeting is denied by a public agency it’s not always intentional, but that does not excuse someone from knowing what the law is, Stenehjem said in 2019. At that time, his office was receiving a “couple dozen” complaints a year.

Once again, remember this Stenehjem quote: “These records belong to the public, not to the people that hold the offices.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Not all politicians talk that way, but Stenehjem did. These words must continue to ring throughout North Dakota.

Stenehjem was an imposing figure – in stature, in politics and in how he interacted with the people – and he cast a large shadow across North Dakota.

Hopefully, Stenehjem’s absence will not create a similar shadow in the previously dark places that were brightened by his years of public service.

What to read next
A Republican-dominated state Senate heard evidence, overcame any instinct to protect one of their own and voted to remove Republican Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg from office after he struck and killed a pedestrian with his car in 2020.
In Crookston, the multi-sport facility is proposed to be built on school property, officially ending the district’s reliance upon the University of Minnesota Crookston football and track facilities. Once UMC dropped its football program, the football stadium started to deteriorate; the school district could fix it, but it doesn’t make sense to invest district dollars into property it doesn’t own. What does make sense is to build new on school property.