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Jacobs: For good government, keep applications open

The former publisher was all set to take on his former newspaper's editorial position about "quiet applications" when the editorial page editor reminded him that the newspaper had endorsed these amendments to the state's Open Records law at least...

The former publisher was all set to take on his former newspaper’s editorial position about “quiet applications” when the editorial page editor reminded him that the newspaper had endorsed these amendments to the state’s Open Records law at least twice while he was, in fact, the publisher.
So, the former publisher has reconsidered the issue and concluded that the newspaper was wrong, both then and now.
Friday’s headline over the Grand Forks Herald’s editorial said, “Let candidates for key posts apply quietly.”
The law allows publication of applicants for jobs, such as the higher education chancellor, university presidents and other campus positions, including vice presidents, provosts, deans and athletic directors.
The argument is that some qualified candidates - maybe even the best candidates - don’t apply because they don’t want the publicity.
I get the argument, but I no longer believe it justifies changing the law.
To start with, the assertion that better people would apply for these jobs if the law didn’t exist simply can’t be proven.
Second, the assertion that the best people don’t apply insults those who do, and who currently hold the jobs.
Even if you accept the premise that the law discourages applicants, that doesn’t make it a bad law. Who is hired and how is the public’s business. Each of us has an interest in the public’s business. To the extent the business is closed, the public is alienated from the government.
Isolation already bedevils higher education in North Dakota. A sizable gulf has developed between the Legislature and higher education. Partly, that’s a result of the Board of Higher Education’s efforts to skirt the open meetings and open records laws. The attorney general actually admonished the board for its repeated violations.
That’s another problem with the proposed legislation. It aggrandizes the state agency that has ignored the law most flagrantly.
Of course, that’s an emotional reaction.
Journalists have an interest in these so-called “sunshine laws” because they help us do our work. The more information is available, the better the reporting can be; and the better the reporting, the better the public’s understanding of the government.
Of course, that’s a professional reaction. I think it’s a high-minded one, but I recognize that I have a selfish, personal interest in sunshine laws.
These notions augment the most important argument against changing the law:
Openness is good business.
While it may be true - though it’s not provable - that someone didn’t apply out of loathing for publicity, it is not true that being identified as a candidate for a job endangers any current job.
Ambition is not grounds for dismissal.
Hiring managers want to know if a candidate has told his or her current employer about a job search. So they generally ask, for two reasons.
One is that not telling an employer of a job search is an act of bad faith on the part of an employee. This is potentially a problem with an existing employer, but it is even deadlier with a prospective one, because good hiring managers don’t choose candidates who hide the truth from their bosses.
A second is that a bidding war can develop between current and prospective employers. It’s better to have that war earlier than later, because no good hiring manager wants salary negotiations to delay getting the right person in the right job.
So, allowing the names of applicants to be public shouldn’t cause any harm to the business, which in this case is higher education.
Concealing the names does do irreparable harm to the government, however.
It sets a precedent. Allowing names to be kept secret at one level will lead to requests at other levels. Pretty soon, we’ll have an assault on government openness in North Dakota.
In fact, the bill as written includes superintendents of public schools.
North Dakota certainly does have sweeping open meetings and open records laws, possibly the broadest in the nation.
The state also has one of the most effective, most trusted governments in the nation, as recent polls have shown - and as Gov. Jack Dalrymple boasted in his State of the State address last month.
This ought to be a source of pride for North Dakotans and an example to other states.
The changes undermine North Dakota’s sunshine laws. They run counter to the state’s political culture.
They hinder journalists’ ability to do our jobs.
Plus, they’re bad business and bad government.

For several years in the 1970s, Jacobs published a newspaper called The Onlooker about North Dakota politics. This column resurrects the name - and the spirit - of that undertaking. Readers can contact Jacobs at mjacobs@polarcomm.com .

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBSMIKE JACOBS
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