Editorial: The fight for 'sunshine' on government secrets continues
"This is Sunshine Week, a nationwide campaign designed to remind all Americans that government works best when it works in sunlight. ... And sure as we’re writing this, dark places exist."
Editor's note: This is one in a series of news stories and editorials from Forum Communications in support of open government. Sunshine Week, which champions open government and celebrates access to public information, is March 12-18.
When North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem died last year, many in the state lamented the loss of a man who promoted open government during his years in office.
At the same time, staff members in his office were working behind the scenes to discard Stenehjem’s emails , forever shielding them from being seen by curious members of the public.
Considering Stenehjem and his office were publicly praised so many times over the years — and in the days after his death — the quick and permanent deletion of his emails stands as one of the most egregious attacks on public openness in the state’s history.
This is Sunshine Week, a time set aside each year since 2005 to promote government openness and transparency. First organized by the American Society of News Editors, it now is a nationwide campaign designed to remind all Americans that government works best when it works in sunlight.
Throughout the week, newspapers in the Forum Communications Co. chain have published a number of Sunshine Week-related pieces, giving examples of open government laws in the Dakotas and Minnesota, explaining the importance of certain public information laws and even imagining what our world would be like without the laws that allow us to peer inside the darkest places.
And sure as we’re writing this, dark places exist.
An example: In Roosevelt, Minnesota, it was learned in 2019 that the town’s financial records essentially existed in a disorganized box of papers. That came to light after a reporter from the Baudette weekly newspaper was berated by a council member and a city clerk when she questioned the city council about not complying with open records laws.
After that incident, the Grand Forks Herald conducted a records request — a process that is legal thanks to Minnesota open government laws — and found that many city records were incomplete or couldn’t be found.
Some lawmakers in our region still are pushing efforts to make records harder to find or acquire. North Dakota House Bill 1198, for instance, sought to require record-seekers to give their name and contact information when seeking government records and data. Thankfully, the proposal failed last month in a House vote, 86-7.
And almost annually, some lawmaker seeks to take legal notices — the fine print outlining public meeting minutes, city business and such — out of newspapers and to put them on government-run websites. It’s a terrible idea, since there is no guarantee those websites will forever be archived or that those records can’t be fiddled with by some unscrupulous rascal in the future.
But perhaps there is no more glaring example than the efforts made by staff members of Stenehjem, in the days after his death.
“We want to make sure no one has an opportunity to make an Open Record request for his emails, especially as he kept EVERYTHING,” administrative assistant Liz Brocker wrote in an email shortly after Stenehjem died.
Thus, the emails were deleted.
In the wake of the incident, new North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley told the Grand Forks Herald that the act of trashing the emails — coupled with the awareness in open government it has prompted — could be useful to bring about change in state government.
“A moment like this can revolutionize thinking throughout government,” he said. “To bring open records and transparency to life takes a process by which documents are preserved, archived and maintained. It’s as simple as that — otherwise, you have openness to nothing.”
We trust that Wrigley will maintain that attitude and be a beacon for open government in North Dakota, providing an example for other states to emulate.
Meanwhile, we urge readers to fight for open records and government transparency, to resist efforts to reduce or hinder openness and to remain steadfast in the belief that openness is always — always — better than the alternative.
This editorial is the opinion of the FCC Editorial Advisory Board, an initiative of Forum Communications Co. Board members represent FCC news organizations in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.