Better sanctioning perhaps needed for government violators

The Belcourt School District was recently found by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem of having violated the state’s open records law by failing to provide copies of records within a reasonable period of time. In his ruling, “Stenehjem wrote that the Belcourt School District is to use materials on the Attorney General’s website to determine how to respond to open records requests in the future,” according to the Associated Press.

Locally, government bodies have violated open meeting and public notice laws with little or no ramification.

According to an attorney well-versed in media matters, various open government laws are often violated, from the local level all the way to the Legislature.

In many cases, the reasons for violations are perfectly innocent and understandable: clerical error, human error or the chaotic pace of committee meetings when the Legislature is in session. Those situations certainly don’t require any more repercussion than, perhaps, a response such as Stenehjem’s order to the Belcourt School District.

Other times, the situation is more foggy or in context could easily have the appearance of impropriety. Finding the line between the two is essential. Yet, even if enough resources are invested in an investigation to determine if a situation can be written off as a simple error or not, what are the sanction options in the latter case? There are few examples of serious consequences in the case of outright criminal activity.

A better system of state oversight and perhaps increased sanctioning for egregious or repeatedly dubious occurences is needed. At the very least a review, open to the public, of course, seems a good place to start.

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