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Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken is a member of the sponsoring committees for referendums seeking to repeal a restriction on the state auditor and a new law shielding lawmakers' communications with public employees. Bakken says he's involved as a proponent of transparency.

Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken is an early supporter of efforts to repeal a criticized restriction on the state auditor and a new law shielding certain communications of North Dakota lawmakers, and says his interest is only for transparency.

The first-term mayor elected in 2018 is a member of sponsoring committees on the two referendums. North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger recently approved the measures' petitions for circulation. Supporters need to gather about 13,500 qualified signatures on each before deadlines in late July to place the referendums on the June 2020 ballot.

The referendums relate to a provision in the state auditor's new budget requiring lawmakers' approval before conducting performance audits and the law exempting lawmakers' communications with public employees from open records.

"For me, they're a big issue of transparency," Bakken said. "More transparency in government is a good thing, and I think that's two things that go to that end." 

Dickinson electrician Riley Kuntz leads the repeal efforts, in addition to another to overturn a budget provision to help fund a proposed Theodore Roosevelt presidential library at Medora. Bakken is not a sponsoring committee member for that.

Bakken, a business development and marketing consultant, said he came to be involved with the two petitions through others associated with the measures. He's been involved with previous ballot measures but couldn't immediately recall which ones. 

The auditor restriction is his primary concern of the two, he added. Performance audits are separate from required two-year audits of state agencies and essentially scrutinize certain issues, such as a 2018 report on the use of state aircraft by the governor's office.

"For me, that's a big piece of transparency, is what the state auditor's office does, and that ability to do the performance audits in particular versus just the financial audits," Bakken said. 

Repealing the law shielding legislators' messages with public employees is related as an open records issue, he added.

Bakken said his roles as a petition sponsor and as mayor are "totally unrelated." He said he's unsure yet how active he'll be as the measures move ahead through signature gathering.

The measures take "a back burner" to his role as mayor and other city issues, such as watching an interim legislative study on replacing revenue from special assessments, he said. 

Elected officials are not prohibited from publicly supporting or opposing measures or candidates, though a 2018 election ad in a local shopper raised questions. Mercer County Sheriff Dean Danzeisen and officials of other counties personally paid for the full-page ad opposing a measure on marijuana legalization in an edition of the Coal Country Dollar Saver.

But the ad stated it was "sponsored and paid by" the sheriff's offices of McLean, Mercer and Oliver counties and the McLean County State's Attorney's Office. Mercer County State's Attorney Jessica Binder said the payment disclosure was "inappropriate" in suggesting public funds paid for the ad.

North Dakota League of Cities Executive Director Blake Crosby said he's unsure of how frequently mayors or elected officials are sponsors of ballot initiatives; he's more concerned with the intent of measures.

Kuntz said he brought the measures after lawmakers' "fail of transparency" over their shielding of emails with employees and their approval of the auditor restriction in the 2019 legislative session.

Lawmakers said the auditor's restriction was about improving communication, while the open records exemption was to indirectly protect constituents' questions that lawmakers share with state employees, such as behavioral health in schools. 

The Roosevelt library, Kuntz said, is a "gross misappropriation of funds" for a project honoring a president not born in North Dakota, while other presidential libraries are built in the executives' home state.

The library was the biggest legislative push of Gov. Doug Burgum, who praised the project's potential tourism and academic benefits.

The library money passed in a provision to the governor's office budget, creating a $50 million endowment from combined excess funds for library operation and maintenance that's only available after $100 million in private funds are raised for construction. 

Kuntz said he thinks gathering signatures can be done by the July deadlines. Bakken's support is a help, he added.

"That's just huge. People want transparency," Kuntz said.

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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