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Byrd: Public record laws matter

Klark Byrd

In a quick-look pamphlet on North Dakota's open records laws, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem tells us that as citizens and taxpayers, we "are entitled to know how state and local government functions are performed and how public funds are spent."

Despite this and other laws in all 50 states granting citizens similar access to public records and meetings, there are always some officials who would rather the public continue in its ignorance of their activities.

Having worked as a journalist in four states, I can attest to the challenge it has become to obtain public records from officials at any level of government. And just as there are officials who prefer to keep their documents away from prying eyes, there are those who eagerly embrace the public's right to know. Their numbers, however, are dwindling it seems.

Would you like to know what excites all public officials? The chance to toot their own horn. They all become ecstatic -- they'll buy you dinner -- when they earn an award or manage to pull off a project on time and under budget. The newsroom's email fills up with press releases of all sorts with official comments that really are nothing more than a pat on the back.

And while we happily print the good news in our pages, it doesn't mean there's a buddy/buddy relationship going on. Those officials will waste little time denouncing the same publication they couldn't be more proud of if it runs an article that in any way shines a negative light, whether perceived or real, on them or their projects.

It then becomes difficult to get public records. While officials will seldom break the law and deny a public records request, they can and do delay them. When the records finally come and the journalist calls for a comment, they suddenly have nothing to say. Or even better, they're consistently unavailable.

So the story runs with public records supporting the facts. Then all hell breaks loose. Letters to the editor come in telling the newspaper how "misleading" or "inaccurate" a story is. With the facts out in the open, suddenly they want to talk with us again. By golly, they can't ring our phone fast enough to help set the record straight.

If this sounds like the airing of dirty laundry over recent events, don't worry. It's a cycle repeated between public officials and newsrooms across America. I encountered it numerous times reporting on public bodies in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming. I've seen the same thing here in North Dakota.

These "sunshine laws" that govern public records and meetings are in place for one purpose: to help the public be as informed as possible about the activities of the governing bodies serving the public. If there's one thing some six-figure government officials need to be reminded of every once in a while, it's that they are public servants. You are their boss. Their documents are your documents.

And here's a little known fact: Journalists are not entitled to any more documentation than any other member of the public. Don't be afraid to exercise your rights to public information. Know the law and put it to good use. It's up to all of us to ensure our public servants are serving us in only the best way possible.

Byrd is the news editor for The Dickinson Press. Email him at kbyrd@thedickinsonpress.com or tweet him at klarkbyrd.

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