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Published January 18, 2013, 08:50 AM

Privacy becomes issue with North Dakota bill-tracker service

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A new online bill-tracking service designed to make North Dakota's legislative process more transparent has prompted emergency action to shield users from public record requests.

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A new online bill-tracking service designed to make North Dakota's legislative process more transparent has prompted emergency action to shield users from public record requests.

Republican Majority Leader Al Carlson urged members of the House on Wednesday to pass a measure exempting users of the system from public record requests aimed at finding out which bills users of the system are tracking and what they're saying about them, The Forum newspaper reported.

"We want transparency. We want our people to be engaged and to follow bills," Carlson said. "I don't think our intention ever was to have somebody track the bills that you are tracking."

The new Legislative Bill Tracking System went live on Jan. 9, the day after the 2013 session started. Users are able to create a list of bills to track. They also can write personal comments about the bills for their own reference.

After launching the system, the Legislative Council — the Legislature's research arm — started receiving questions about the user comments, raising concerns someone could seek such information through an open records request, said John Bjornson, an attorney for the council.

"Pretty handy tool for a lobbyist to say, 'Hey, I want to get the lobbyist on the other side's tracking list and see what they're saying about the bills,'" he said. "So it became clear that we needed to take a look at whether that was a public record."

Bjornson said council staff believes the records likely are protected under an existing state law that exempts legislative records "of a purely personal or private nature."

"But we wanted to make it absolutely clear so that the public would be encouraged to use the system," he said.

Carlson, R-Fargo, and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, introduced the bill, which was referred to the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 11. On Monday, blogger Rob Port emailed a request to the council seeking copies of all comments made on bills by users of the tracking service.

Carlson then urged rapid passage of the bill, which amends the open records law to state, "Any record maintained within a legislative bill tracking system administered or operated by a public entity is an exempt record."

The House passed the bill on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday.

House Democratic Minority Leader Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, questioned the bill being rushed through without debate, saying, "We are bypassing something that's been real integral to our process."

Carlson said swift action was needed to protect the privacy of the system's users.

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