Keeping the sun shining on local governments in ND

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Posted 3/13/18 (Tue)

Passing Dreams
By Steve Andrist

“Democracy Dies in Darkness,” the Washington Post declares every day.
The slogan pretty much defines why we have a week set aside to discuss, promote and celebrate America’s special place as a country that values transparency in governments by and for the people.
This week, March 11-17, is Sunshine Week, a nationwide celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community.
Yet, even as we celebrate keeping the lights of democracy turned on, there are hands on the dimmer switch, even here in North Dakota.
A proposal forwarded by the North Dakota Association of Counties would shade some of our treasured sunlight.
At that association’s request, the legislature’s Interim Judiciary Committee early next month will be discussing a bill draft that would allow local governments to quit publishing minutes of their meetings in their official newspapers and instead squirrel them away on government websites that are visited by very few people.
The reason for the proposal is to save taxpayers’ money. The reality is that very little will be saved. Most local governments pay only a few thousand dollars a year to have their minutes published. All local governments spend much less than one-tenth of 1 percent of their general fund on minutes publication.
It’s an inexpensive way for our governments to communicate with us.
It’s also a way that voters support -- time and again.
In North Dakota today, county boards are required by law to publish their meeting minutes in their official newspapers. Cities and school districts must ask their voters to decide whether minutes should be published.
What do voters say? In 252 cities across the state in the last election cycle, 73,583 voters said, “publish the minutes.” Only 13,432 disagreed. 
That’s 85 percent in favor, an unheard-of majority for most any election. 
The collective total for 132 school districts was 83 percent in favor, a total any elected official would view with envy.
Consider, too, that a June 2017 study by Pulse Research of Portland, Ore., determined that local newspapers are read at least once a week in 82 percent of North Dakota households.
I don’t know about you, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that there aren’t nearly that many eyeballs on www.dividecountynd.org, www.tiogand.net or most any other local government website.
We also know from the same Pulse survey that North Dakota citizens prefer to get their public notices in newspapers. Their second-favorite way to get public notices was direct mail. Websites were a distant third.
Given a choice between newspapers and government websites, 58 percent chose newspapers as the preferred media for public notices like minutes, and 33 percent chose websites.
So if voters like and support the system we have now, and if changing it saves a comparatively small amount of money, why would we want to change? Especially if doing so results in making it more difficult for citizens to access public information and less likely that they’ll access it? Especially when websites are subject to failure, hacking and manipulation?
The short answer is there’s no need to change. 
On the surface, this minutes proposal may seem like small potatoes. Digging deeper, it would be a blow to government transparency and to maintaining an engaged citizenry.
Every small twist of the dimmer switch brings us closer to the darkness where democracy dies. That’s not what we need.
We need more sunlight.

A global economy
It’s nice that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue could stop in North Dakota last week. With the state’s standing in the country’s agriculture economy, you might have thought North Dakota would be higher than 34th on his list of states to visit.
But what’s important about his visit is what North Dakota political and industry leaders told him: Fair international trade is priority one, especially maintaining and growing global markets for locally produced food.
Like it or not, we now live and work in a global economy where our customers could as easily be in Canada or China as in Cass County. We can build protectionist walls, but most of the time they’ll hurt more than help.