Keep public records for the public
There’s an effort underway by North Dakota counties and cities to no longer publish a register of taxpayer bills in their official local newspapers.
Instead, they want to put them on their government websites, provided the county or city has a website.
It’s meant as a cost-savings measure, they argue. Statewide lobbying groups for counties and cities support a bill debated last week in the House Political Subdivisions Committee that would allow them to forego publishing such payments in print. It’s House Bill 1229.
Newspapers across North Dakota, as you might expect, don’t like this idea. Yes, newspapers receive some revenue for publishing this information. But the state’s newspapers also believe it’s an important public service for three main reasons:
First, readers can learn a lot about their local governments by serendipitously perusing the checks local governments cut each month.
What did it cost to buy a new police car or send the sheriff to training?
What expenses did the commissioner incur while traveling to testify in Bismarck?
What did it cost to put up the new traffic light along Main Street?
Few people might take the time to seek out this information on a city or county website, but they could very well notice it while scanning a newspaper or its website.
Secondly, having those check registers housed in a third-party location helps prevent fraud. If an elected official or a city or county employee wants to hide something from public purview, it would be much easier to tamper with those records under government control than in a newspaper or its non-government-run website.
Thirdly, even in today’s fast-paced technological world, some North Dakotans still don’t routinely use a computer or may not even have one. Forcing all North Dakota taxpayers to go online to find what they’re seeking doesn’t equitably serve all citizens of the state.
North Dakotans deserve to know how their tax money is being spent. And North Dakota voters have repeatedly and unequivocally chosen at the ballot box to support publishing such information in their newspapers of record.
State law requires each North Dakota city to vote every four years on whether the minutes and bills of the city governing board should be published in the city’s official newspaper.
In 2016, the collective vote in 252 cities was 73,583 in favor of publication and 13,432 against. That’s 85 percent in favor and 15 percent opposed. In Fargo, the “yes” vote was 80 percent; in Minot 91 percent; in Bismarck 82 percent; in West Fargo 83 percent; in Jamestown 87 percent, just to name a few.
State law also requires each North Dakota school district to vote every two years on whether the school board minutes and bills should be published in the district’s official newspaper.
Results from recent elections showed a collective vote in 132 of the 178 school districts was 62,499 in favor or publication and 12,422 opposed. That’s 83 percent in favor and 17 percent opposed. In Fargo, the “yes” vote was 80 percent; in Minot 89 percent; in Bismarck 84 percent; in West Fargo 83 percent; in Jamestown 87 percent.
There’s really no question that North Dakota taxpayers want to find records of the bills they are paying in their local newspapers, not on a government website that most will never even think to peruse. We urge lawmakers to maintain total transparency and say no to House Bill 1229.