Sunshine state is not so sunny now by David Bordewyk, general manager, South Dakota Newspaper Association A unique test occurred statewide in South Dakota this summer. Reporters, editors and other staff of South Dakota�s 11 daily newspapers and The Associated Press visited city, county and school offices in all county seats on June 26 to check whether certain records are available to the public. They sought property tax records, salaries of school athletic directors and city finance officers and daily logs of law enforcement.
For the most part, the records sought by the testers were readily available. Except for the crime logs of county sheriffs and city police. Access to those records was spotty at best.
Why the test? In part, to spotlight the importance of public access to government records. Following similar tests done in at least two dozen other states, the editors of the state�s daily newspapers wanted to provide benchmarks on how South Dakota stacks up in providing the public access to government records.
Many states have broad, comprehensive freedom of information laws spelling out what government records are and are not available to the public, how records are to be made available for viewing or copying by citizens, and how conflicts or questions about access to government records are resolved.
South Dakota doesn�t have a lengthy �sunshine act� or �FOI� law.
Our law (SDCL 1-27-1) simply says, in part: �If the keeping of a record, or the preservation of a document or other instrument is required of an officer or public servant under any statute of this state, the officer or public servant shall keep the record, document or other instrument available and open to inspection by any person during normal business hours.�
Sounds simple enough. Shouldn�t be a problem, right? Well, yes and no.
For example, our law works fine for accessing government documents like property tax records. Those documents are required by law to be kept and no statute requires them to be kept confidential. So, anyone can go to the courthouse and look at property tax records.
Crime logs of law enforcement are a different story. Nowhere in state law does it say that daily crime logs or activity reports are required to be
kept by law enforcement officials. That doesn�t mean law enforcement offices in the state don�t keep some kind of crime log or daily record. In fact, most do.
But since there�s nothing in state law specifically requiring those crime logs to be maintained, there�s no guarantee you or I can view it if we asked to see it.
By now you are wondering why all the fuss about crime logs at the sheriff�s office or city police station. Just a bunch of nosey newspaper people making something out of nothing.
Well, it�s not just about crime logs and property tax records. It�s bigger than that.
Ensuring that you and I and everyone have equal, unfettered access to government records and documents gets to the heart of what a democratic
government is about. It�s even more serious business in this post 9-11 period when the tendencies by many are to shut off access to certain government information in the name of homeland security.
You and I are shareholders in a very important business � our government. We have a stake and investment in our democratic government.
As such, we have a right to access the records and documents that go along with running the business of government. Don�t you think there are Enron shareholders who would have like to had greater access to that corporation�s financial records a year or two ago?
You and I may not seek out public records often or ever at all, but much of the information we glean from the news media and other sources and use in our everyday lives is rooted in government public records.
Sunshine is a great disinfectant. Openness keeps things clean and honest. Openness in government reduces suspicion and questions and it promotes honesty and integrity.
South Dakota�s nickname at one time was the �Sunshine State.� We all need to work toward reviving that nickname when it comes to openness and
accessibility in our government.