Citing transparency worries, ND newspaper group head decries bill draft
BISMARCK — The head of the North Dakota Newspaper Association raised alarms Friday, March 30, over a legislative bill draft that he said would reduce government transparency.
The bill, which will be discussed at Monday's meeting of the interim Judiciary Committee at the state Capitol, would allow county governments to publish "a full and complete report of its official proceedings" and election returns on its website or official newspaper. State law currently requires that information to be published in the newspaper.
Steve Andrist, the NDNA executive director, said the changes would generally mean modest savings for counties at the expense of keeping people informed. Andrist acknowledged newspapers have a financial stake in the matter but said the "most important part of it is transparency and communication with constituencies."
"We obviously think that tucking these things away on government websites effectively removes them from public view," Andrist said. "Because most people just aren't in the habit of browsing through the McLean County website to find out if there's anything of interest."
Forum Communications Co. officials are members of NDNA's board of directors.
Minot Republican Sen. David Hogue, the interim Judiciary Committee's chairman, argued fewer people read newspapers for the legal notices but things like notices of upcoming meetings should still be published there.
The proposed bill, provided to Forum News Service by Andrist, also allows counties to avoid publishing "orders and vouchers for payment of moneys from the county treasury" in its meeting minutes.
In committee testimony from January, a North Dakota Association of Counties official said the "biggest chunk of the cost to publish minutes is the inclusion of checks (and) expenditures."
"Our auditors question whether the listing of this information is truly meaningful," wrote Donnell Preskey Hushka, the organization's government and public relations specialist, noting that some counties have made the data available online.
Preskey Hushka cited the example of Towner County, which pays $6,000 a year, or $500 a month, to publish meeting minutes. She emphasized that the county association was not "pushing" the legislative study.
State lawmakers passed a resolution last session suggesting a study of "various legal notice and publishing requirements." The resolution estimated that state agencies spend $3.7 million during each two-year budget cycle publishing legal notices while "many forms of alternative and mainstream media are now available."