Public servants who won’t explain themselves shouldn’t get to be public servants

North Dakota has very strong open records laws, and the foundation of that strength is a presumption that all records kept by the state are public absent law specifically allowing them to be kept a secret.

This means that when you request records from the government — any iteration of it from the Governor’s Office down to your local park board — the government has to give it to you.

If they want to decline your request, the burden is on them to cite the law which allows them to do so.

There’s a loophole, however: The open records laws do not require that the government create a record for you. If the information you want is not encapsulated in something like an email or a document, the government doesn’t have to give you anything.

You wouldn’t think we’d need a law which compels people who work for the public to explain themselves to the public, but such refusals are becoming increasingly common.

A couple of recent examples.

Earlier this year the North Dakota Department of Transportation investigated drivers license division director Glenn Jackson because of his alleged conduct around female subordinates.

Jackson ultimately resigned, but during the months he was suspended because of the investigation his signature continued to be used by the DOT to certify records.

I asked the DOT for an explanation — how could someone on leave for alleged inappropriate conduct still be certifying records used in legal proceedings? — but they stiff armed me.

“Per your recent email, we have been advised by our Legal staff that it is department policy for employees to not discuss matters that may be subject to litigation or other controversy unless subpoenaed,” DOT spokeswoman Jamie Olson told me.

More recently the executive director of the Fargo Parks District, Joel Vettel, abruptly announced his resignation.

Nobody really knows why.

The local park board negotiated a separation agreement with him, which includes a golden parachute worth tens of thousands of dollars for the rest of the year, and that agreement included no fewer than three sections about not releasing details of the separation to the public.

How are they getting away with this nonsense?

If a DOT director, on leave because he apparently couldn’t behave himself around female colleagues, was still certifying documents while on leave shouldn’t the public know why? More troubling, if someone at the DOT was forging his signature, maybe the taxpayers are owed an explanation?

The same is true for Vettel. Why are the taxpayers paying him to go away? Was leaving his choice? Was he a bad hire? If so, shouldn’t the voters in Fargo know that, so they can decide whether or not members of the park board deserve to be re-elected?

Again, our open records laws are very strong, but they can’t make our public officials explain themselves.

All we can do is take note when they don’t, and vote accordingly.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.

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