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Tribune editorial: Ethics panel must be more transparent

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Ethics Commission hearing

Ethics Commission Executive Director Dave Thiele, center, leads a hearing on Tuesday at the board's office in Bismarck. North Dakotans for Public Integrity President Dina Butcher, seated right, and former state Agriculture Commissioner Sarah Vogel, standing, attended and shared concerns about the board's openness.

The North Dakota Ethics Commission can expect to be held to a high standard. That’s a given for a board setting the rules of behavior for state officials.

The commission received some critical feedback this week during an administrative hearing on proposed conflict of interest rules. There were a number of issues raised, but it came down to a lack of transparency.

Members of North Dakotans for Public Integrity leveled the criticisms. The group sponsored the ballot measure that was approved and created the Ethics Commission. The group can be protective of the commission and have definite ideas on how it should be operated.

The Tribune editorial board believes group members raised valid points that need to be addressed. The hearing notice called it a public hearing, but it was held in a hallway with only a handful of chairs. It didn't signal to the public that the commission was interested in engaging with the public.

Public Integrity President Dina Butcher and Vice President Ellen Chaffee attended the meeting and detailed what they consider the commission’s shortcomings. They argue the commission’s website is not user friendly; minutes posted online aren’t detailed; recordings of the meetings aren’t online; and hearings aren’t broadcast.

These are all fixable issues. If the commission doesn’t have the capability to broadcast hearings, it should find a solution. The commission already meets over Microsoft Teams. Accommodating remote access for public hearings would allow more North Dakotans to participate.

Ethics Commission Chairman Ron Goodman told the Tribune that the website will be updated and that the commission can do better. The other commissioners are Cynthia Lindquist, Paul Richard, Edwin “Ward” Koeser and David Anderson.

Butcher and Chaffee questioned why commissioners weren’t in attendance at the hearing. Commission Executive Director Dave Thiele said commissioners don’t usually attend administrative rules hearings. Thiele handles those hearings and briefs commissioners.

There is nothing barring commission members from attending public hearings on administrative rules. At least one state agency handles administrative rules hearings differently. The Public Service Commission is present at those types of hearings. 

Any time the Ethics Commission finishes draft rules, Butcher and Chaffee would like a public discussion on them. Butcher also encouraged commissioners to hold educational meetings across the state.

The Ethics Commission was created by voters in 2018, and it has taken some time to get it organized. The commissioners have adopted complaint and gift rules and are now working on conflict of interest rules.

So far the commission has received and rejected 13 complaints. They were rejected because of the lack of jurisdiction or the failure to allege an offense or violation. This would indicate that educational meetings would be useful.

The public may not be aware of the parameters involved with the Ethics Commission. Educational meetings might reduce the number of frivolous complaints the commission receives.

It’s essential the commission is transparent. Commissioners may feel they have been, but they are going to be closely watched. The vote in 2018 indicated the public desired a watchdog. The watchdog is being watched by a lot of eyes.

The commission has a tough task that’s become more important as the public has become increasingly suspicious of government. If the commission can, at least partially, restore the public’s faith in government, it will be a major achievement.

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