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Zaleski: Wrapping up worst ideas of last year

Wrapping up last week's theme of the worst ideas of 2017, here are three more.

Gov. Doug Burgum named North Dakota's first "chief people officer." No joke. It's one of those fashionable corporate culture things that has its genesis in the allegedly visionary technology sector. No surprise, therefore, that new CPO Cheri Schoenfish is taking a one-year leave from Microsoft, where she's director of global talent management. Wow. What luck for the simple folks in the state Capitol. She'll help them "reach their full potential," as she said in a news release.

The governor is high priest of high tech, having sold his Great Plains Software company to Microsoft. He has pledged to reinvent state government. He believes the application of technology, data-driven decision making and motivated people will get it done. Sounds good, but in practice, he's sure to run up against the necessarily creaky machinery of representative government. It's the old sausage-making metaphor. It's not pretty. It's not efficient. It's not readily amenable to algorithms and statistical analysis.

Could it be the governor understands that governing is a people thing—unpredictable and often infuriatingly illogical and bereft of common sense? In that light, a CPO makes sense. Bringing people together and all. You know, "have a nice day," or using Burgum's "North Dakota team culture" to its full potential. And in between, the Capitol's employees might get some work done.

Schoenfish will be paid $140,000. Not bad for the governor's version of a Walmart greeter.

Killing off BreatheND was among the Legislature's dumbest stunts. The small agency had compiled a record of success without using a dime of tax dollars. BreatheND was funded by the 1998 national tobacco settlement. In 2008, voters supported the agency by approving a measure that required final settlement payments to to be used only for tobacco programs. Ninety percent of previous payments had been diverted to other uses.

BreatheND achieved results. Youth smoking rates declined. Smoking in public places became anathema. Education efforts paid off. And all done without an appropriation.

Lawmakers disrespected voters, dismissed an agency that did what it said it would do, and violated standards of budget stewardship. The governor, who wants to reinvent government, went along with it. Disappointing.

A reader said the worst idea of 2017 was keeping me on as a Sunday columnist. I was in good company.

She said the same about Forum columnists Mike McFeely, Jim Shaw, Jane Ahlin, Steve Stark and Rob Port. Rob Port? But he's a genuine conservative, I reminded her. She conceded that point, but insisted Port should be out because he's an atheist. Port revealed his rejection of all things theopneustic in a column a few months ago.

Good for him. Takes courage to out oneself as an atheist in a place where religion, both faux and sincere, is woven deeply into the societal fabric.

As for me and the others, all claim religious traditions, some more serious about it than others. Maybe the reader who wants us gone should give us the pass she would deny Mr. Port.

Zaleski retired in 2017 after nearly 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He continues to write a Sunday column. Contact him at or 701-241-521.