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Government in the Sunshine

“Sunshine laws” laws guarantee public access to information about the meetings and records of public agencies. By the 1970s, all 50 states had adopted sunshine laws. And it was on this date in 1975, following the Watergate scandal, that the “Government in the Sunshine Act” was introduced in the Senate. It would become law the following year.

North Dakota has always been far ahead of the sunshine law movement. In 1872, well before statehood, a Dakota Territory law provided for printing township meeting minutes in newspapers. Starting in 1874, counties were required to publish minutes of board meetings. An 1887 law addressed city councils, requiring that they “shall sit with open doors and shall keep a journal of their own proceedings.”

When representatives of North and South Dakota met in 1889 to work out the details of dividing Dakota Territory into two states, they voted down a motion to hold the proceedings behind closed doors.  When the North Dakota State Constitution was approved by voters, a provision required the State Legislature to hold open meetings.

In 1957, the various provisions regarding open meetings and records were condensed into one statute. It was plain by that time that North Dakotans were going to insist on access to public records. Laws passed in other states often limited access to certain records identified by law. North Dakota chose to require all meetings and records to be open unless a law specifically allowed them not to be open.

In 1975, North Dakota was the first state to put open meetings and records in the state Constitution. That amendment was overwhelmingly approved by the voters. Changes to the open meetings and records law were passed in 1997 to incorporate decisions by the courts and attorneys general. But the law continues to adhere to the spirit of the original 1872 legislation. Meetings and records are presumed to be open unless specifically exempted.

Over the years there have been some halfhearted attempts to tighten that access, but North Dakotans have refused to give in. Today the citizens of the state enjoy broader access to public meetings and records than almost any other state.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

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