BISMARCK (AP) - Secretary of State Al Jaeger said Monday he intends to restore normal public office hours for his office in early September, just before a deadline for political candidates to qualify for the general election ballot.
Jaeger's Capitol office has been closed to the public during part of the regular 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. work day since early April to allow workers to catch up on processing an increased number of business registrations, contractor license applications and other documents. The office is now open from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
The change has drawn criticism, including some from Jaeger's fellow Republicans, but he said Monday it accomplished its purpose. Business paperwork is being processed in about three weeks, when it had been taking as long as six weeks, Jaeger said. He wants to cut the turnaround time to two weeks or less.
"It really made a difference," the secretary of state said. "There's been people that have been critical, but I have just been very surprised and grateful for the number of people who said, 'Yeah ... we know you're busy, and what you're doing makes sense to me.'"
The secretary of state issues contractor and business licenses, is a repository for annual reports and keeps records on trademarks, trade and franchise names. The number of filings has risen steeply in recent years, driven by western North Dakota's oil industry and general business growth statewide.
The Legislature's Budget Section, a committee that includes state House and Senate budget writers, authorized Jaeger in June to hire three new employees and encouraged him to go back to normal office hours.
"I think it might have been able to be handled differently, but I'm not the person sitting at the desk," Sen. Raymon Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, a Budget Section member and chairman of the North Dakota Senate's Appropriations Committee, said of Jaeger's decision to reduce his public office hours.
"(Jaeger) is an elected official," Holmberg said Monday. "He has to answer to the voters for what he does."
Two of the new workers are to begin their jobs Sept. 4, after the Labor Day holiday, when Jaeger said he plans to resume 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekday office hours.
The following Friday, Sept. 7, is the deadline for independent candidates for statewide offices and the Legislature to file nominating petitions. Jaeger, who is the state's chief elections administrator, must provide finished candidate lists to North Dakota's county auditors by Sept. 12.