Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias Under state law, government information such as minutes (county, city and school), election ballots and bid notices are required to be published in your newspaper. Doing so protects your right to know about the business of local government.

What's ironic is that this right, valued greatly by the majority of South Dakotans, often is at risk, not only in the halls of the state Capitol in Pierre, but also locally, in places like the Clay County Courthouse.

Special-interest groups have tried to whittle away at the public's right to know during the session of the South Dakota Legislature.

Attempts were made recently to introduce legislation in Pierre that would severely limit public access to information about local governments.

If lobbyists representing county commissioners had their way in Pierre during this legislative session, access to important public notice information such as election notices and ballots would be gutted.

That's because the county commissioners' lobbyists want to reduce the number of newspapers in each county that would be required to publish important public notices.

Today in South Dakota, under state law, each county is required to publish its public notices (commission proceedings, bid notices, election notices, etc.) in up to three newspapers in each county. If a county has less than three newspapers, then the county is required to publish public notices in as many newspapers as there is in the county.

It's a law that works very well at keeping the citizens of South Dakota informed.

Fortunately, the lobbyists didn't have their way. The bill reducing the number of newspapers required to publish public notices apparently isn't going anywhere. A proposal to place public notices on the Internet, which also would have the effect of limiting citizens' access to such information, also appears to be dead in the water.

These issues remind us of happenings in Clay County approximately a year ago, when the Clay County Commission was taken to task by a packed room of citizens.

A crowd of 30 people accused the commission of keeping them in the dark about a proposed ordinance regarding concentrated animal feeding operations and fee schedules.

The commission's accusers apparently weren't aware that the governmental body had been directing their energies to zoning for nearly a year.

Last year, the commission held two public hearings on the ordinance. Only a small handful of people showed up at each hearing.

The commission listened to their input, but included a fair share of their own. Keep in mind that this governing body includes people from various walks of life, including farming.

In the two weeks prior to each meeting, as required by law, the commission published notices in the Plain Talk and Wakonda Times informing citizens of the hearing. Each notice contained this key statement: "Any person may appear and be heard upon all matters pertaining to the zoning change."

Despite the commission taking all of the proper steps to notify the public of these zoning hearings last year, some members of the public weren't satisfied.

They suggested that the county mail a post card to residents informing them of public hearings � which, in effect, would further erode the people's right to know.

There's a much better system already in place. People throughout South Dakota can keep tabs on the happenings of local government, and on scheduled public hearings quite simply.

All they have to do is read their local newspaper.

The Plain Talk and Wakonda Times are the official newspapers of record for Clay County and a host of other local government entities.

Those who ignore their hometown newspapers are more likely to be ignorant of their community's important issues. Last spring, for example, citizens were offered plenty of opportunity by the county commission to be informed and participate in the zoning hearings.

We're happy to report that such opportunities for the public to be informed haven't been weakened. All people need to do is read their newspapers' public notices.

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