Ag candidate questions slow records response: Taylor seeks AG opinion on whether delayed request for Industrial Commission records is ‘reasonable’
BISMARCK — The Democratic candidate for state agriculture commissioner said Friday he is seeking an attorney general’s opinion on whether the North Dakota Industrial Commission has violated the state’s open records laws by taking more than a month to provide public records requested by one of his campaign volunteers.
Former state senator Ryan Taylor of Towner is challenging current Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, a Republican, for the office. The job includes a seat on the three-member Industrial Commission that has grown in importance because it governs the state’s booming oil and gas industry.
One of Taylor’s campaign volunteers, Ellen Chaffee, a former president of Valley City State University who also was Taylor’s running mate in his failed bid for governor in 2012, made an open records request March 5 for minutes of all Industrial Commission meetings from 2009 to March 1 of this year.
Chaffee made two follow-up requests but as of April 4 had received only the minutes for 2009, Taylor said. In an emailed response to Chaffee that day, Industrial Commission Executive Director Karlene Fine stated that the 2010 minutes would come the next week and then the 2011 minutes the following week, and so on.
Fine said Friday that the reason the request has taken so long to complete is that she’s had to review each meeting’s minutes to ensure that confidential portions of the meetings aren’t included.
“We’ve had other (records) requests that we’ve been dealing with too,” she said.
Taylor said he understands that complex records requests can take longer to fulfill.
“But I look at minutes as not being complex,” he said. “These are kind of the standard for doing business.”
State law says a public entity must respond to an open records request within a “reasonable” amount of time. A citizen’s guide prepared by the office of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem – who serves on the Industrial Commission with Goehring and Gov. Jack Dalrymple – states that, “Generally, a ‘reasonable time’ is measured in hours or a few days, but depending on the amount and type of records requested and various other factors, it may be several days or weeks.”
Taylor said he believes the meeting minutes should be posted on the commission’s website.
“That would be my pledge as ag commissioner, as a member of the Industrial Commission, is to enter the 21st century here and have those minutes online,” he said.
Taylor said the agricultural commissioner’s race is important not only because agriculture is the state’s leading industry but also because of the commissioner’s role on the Industrial Commission as it pertains to the oil and gas industry. He referred to frustrations raised by landowners about the effects of the oil industry at a legislative committee in Minot earlier this week.
“They should know how their ag commissioner voted on those issues ... and they shouldn’t have to do a freedom of information request to get those minutes and how the votes were tallied,” he said.
Goehring and Stenehjem said in separate interviews that the Industrial Commission hasn’t discussed posting its minutes online, but they’re not opposed to it.
“Agencies generally have not been in the habit of that, but they provide minutes whenever minutes are requested,” Goehring said.
A quick search of North Dakota state government websites shows that some post meeting minutes online, including the Emergency Commission, Public Service Commission, State Board of Higher Education, State Investment Board and State Water Commission, while others don’t, including the State Historical Society and Workforce Safety & Insurance.
Taylor said he doesn’t know what is delaying the records request, but he doesn’t blame Industrial Commission staff for it.
“If there’s fault to be had for the delay, it’s not the fault of the people who are probably working overtime already. It’s the fault of the leaders,” he said, adding that if more employees are needed, “The ag commissioner needs to be advocating for those resources so they can do their jobs.”
Goehring said he believes the Industrial Commission has been responsive to open records requests and that Fine is “by the book” and “a great employee.”
“We know that she takes a lot on, and that’s part of why last fall we gave her a directive to hire someone else to assist her,” he said.
Fine said the position was authorized to help with additional commission responsibilities related to the Outdoor Heritage Fund and Western Area Water Supply. She said she is still looking for someone for the role and whether it should be a full-timer or two part-timers.
Stenehjem confirmed his office received Taylor’s opinion request. He said the Industrial Commission will have 10 days to respond, and the draft opinion will go through four staff lawyers before he weighs in as attorney general, despite his position on the commission.
“This is a non-delegable duty,” he said.