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Who should pay for e-mails requested from higher education

Some lawmakers are questioning who should pay the cost when a legislator asks for e-mails or other records from state agencies – that could result in hundreds of pages, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs.

As Prairie Public's Dave Thompson reports, the issue came up during the interim Higher Education Funding committee meeting.

An unnamed legislator had asked for e-mails pertaining to the relationship between former University System chancellor Ham Shirvani and the college presidents – and whether the presidents were conspiring to have Shirvani fired.

Acting University System chancellor Larry Skogen told the committee there were thousands of e-mails, and system attorneys spent about 600 hours working on the request. The lawmaker who asked for the e-mails doesn't have to pay anything.

"By the time we're done with this, it's probably more than $100,000," said Rep. Kathy Hawken (R-Fargo). "This does affect our budget. I don't think it's exactly right."

Rep. Bob Martinson (R-Bismarck) said he thinks the legislator who requested the e-mails already knew what was in them – and made the open records request just to cause trouble.

"It's entirely possible the e-mails were read last session by the chief information officer of the system, provided to the chancellor, and provided to a legislator to cause problems," Martinson said. "If I were the one, and I thought I had what I thought was the big bad e-mail, I'd just bring it out, and say, 'Here's the one I was looking for.'"

The committee chairman – Rep. Mark Sanford (R-Grand Forks) – says the issue could be given to the Legislative Management committee for further study.

Sen. Ray Holmberg (R-Grand Forks) chairs the Legislative Management Committee. He pointed out that the name of any person requesting e-mails and documents under the open records law can remain confidential under that law.

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