Openness in government: Let the sun shine in
This week is Sunshine Week, a national observance to spotlight the importance of openness and transparency in government at all levels.
Open government is fundamental to good government. Openness builds citizen trust and confidence in government.
Over the years South Dakota has made strides toward openness and transparency. Among those achievements:
Major reforms to the state’s open meetings laws and open records laws during the past dozen or so years.
Creation of appeals processes that citizens can use if they believe the state’s open meetings or open records laws have been violated.
Most importantly, a greater awareness among elected officials in state and local government about the importance of transparency in what they do.
Related to the third point, I can recall a time not long ago when the terms “open government” and “government transparency” rarely made it into the policy-making vernacular among elected officials in South Dakota. Today, it’s different and for the better.
Despite advancements, we still see challenges in our state. For example, much of the discussion surrounding recent controversies in South Dakota involve questions about a lack of transparency and openness. Controversies such as the federal EB-5 visa program and GEAR UP college readiness educational grants.
To be fair, many of the questions the news media and public have about the EB-5 and GEAR UP stories are tied to criminal investigations. And answers to those questions often are not easy to come by. Answers that may not emerge until someone is under oath in a courtroom.
Still, those two controversies have pointed to the need for government to be more accountable and more transparent about the flow of money in and out of government and the decision-making by government officials.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard and legislators responded to those controversies this legislative session with two important bills that have been approved.
One bill proposed by the governor will create a seven-member state board to provide better internal controls for state agencies and outside organizations that receive grants through the state.
Rep. Mark Mickelson and Sen. Deb Peters sponsored a bill to regulate and disclose conflicts of interest among certain state boards and commissions.
Both bills are significant, solid steps toward better accountability in our government.
The Legislature also approved three bills that amend the state’s open meetings laws:
Senate Bill 73 sponsored by Sen. Corey Brown and Rep. Al Novstrup defines in our state’s open meetings laws what is a public meeting and clarifies that the use of electronic communications such as email by public boards to conduct official business is not permitted unless the open meetings laws are followed. The bill has been signed by the governor.
Senate Bill 90 sponsored by Sen. Ried Holien and Rep. Burt Tulson makes it clear that a public board cannot ban someone from electronically recording a public meeting. As crazy as it may seem, this has been an issue from time to time in our state. SB90 was delivered to the governor’s desk on March 9.
House Bill 1066 sponsored by Rep. Lee Schoenbeck and Sen. Bernie Hunhoff requires state boards and commissions to post an agenda with at least two intervening days before a meeting. Local governments will still be required to provide at least 24 hours notice of a meeting agenda. The bill has been signed by the governor.
All in all, a good body of work by legislators and the governor on open government issues in the 2016 session.
Still, more work remains.
For example, South Dakota’s open records laws contain several broad exceptions that allow certain records to be kept confidential. Specifically, almost all official correspondence (including email) of public officials can be kept secret. And, it usually is. Another exception in the open records law allows public officials to keep secret wide swaths of documents and records used by government to make policy.
Let’s use this Sunshine Week observance to keep the pressure on. Let’s keep working toward more openness in our government. Let’s keep working to develop strong leaders and advocates for open government among our elected officials.
Let’s make the sun shine brightly in the halls of government at all levels in South Dakota. Good government depends on it.
David Bordewyk is general manager of South Dakota Newspaper Association, which represents the state’s 128 weekly and daily newspapers.
- South Dakota
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