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Monday, July 10, 2006

The reporter's new tool

If you haven't read Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's opinion on the Robert Potts/Joseph Chapman affair, it's here in PDF format and definitely worth your time. As Herald editor Mike Jacobs said in his Sunday column, the document is "part detective story, part gossip column and part shoe-leather reporting," and gives exceptional behind-the-scenes details that left North Dakota journalists shaking their heads in admiration.

Starting with, for example, State Sen. Ray Holmberg's original source for his April statement to The Forum newspaper that "the votes are there" on the board to oust Chancellor Potts. The press had tried for months to learn who Holmberg's source had been on the board, but all the attorney general's office had to do was ask. (The answer: board member Bev Clayburgh.)

Anyway, the AG's opinion goes into so much chronological detail that the document's Open Meetings Law material almost seems to be an afterthought -- even though, of course, it was an Open Meetings Law query that prompted the AG's investigation in the first place.

So here's a tongue-in-cheek idea, North Dakota media types: Are you wondering what the real story is behind a City Council resolution, County Commission vote or any other mysterious public-policy decision? Then figure out an Open Meetings Law angle and ask the attorney general to investigate! True, a reporter could ask all of the same questions of public officials -- as, in fact, reporters did in the recent Board of Higher Education episodes. But while public officials can and do give reporters the brush-off, they turn out to be plenty willing to talk when assistant AGs come calling (armed with subpoenas, I wonder?) from from the state attorney general's office.

Hmm ... I wonder if more than two Grand Forks School Board members ever met privately to talk about, say, televising the school board meetings, publishing the board's minutes or making sharper cuts in the GF mill levy? Gen. Stenehjem, check it out!


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