Between the Lines

Between the Lines by David Lias Rod Hall, a member of the Mitchell School Board, is in hot water.

Hall could face a misdemeanor charge for violating the board�s policy on executive sessions, Mitchell School Board President Linda Margheim said in a recent Associated Press story.

Margheim said she did not know if Hall would be charged but did say the board will investigate its next step.

But Hall said he did not violate any policies.

�I disclosed the topic of the upcoming meeting,� Hall said. �We hadn�t had executive session yet, so how could I have violated anything?�

This situation offers considerable food for thought for not only members of the Mitchell School District, but also for all people of South Dakota.

While executive session law does not require boards to go behind closed doors to discuss certain issues such as contract or personnel matters, it does allow boards to close their doors for those types of discussions if board members so choose.

The law is designed primarily to shield sensitive dealings of local government boards from public scrutiny. That�s certainly understandable � to a point. We all know there are instances when discussions that involve personnel, or students, or contract matters, need to be conducted with some degree of privacy.

What�s ironic about the situation involving Hall is he�s in trouble for revealing only the topic of an executive session before (and we place emphasis on the word before) it was even held.

Hall told the Mitchell Daily Republic that a potential real estate transaction set for executive session discussion by the Mitchell School Board concerned the possibility of the district buying an elementary school from Dakota Wesleyan University, which leases the building to the Mitchell School District. The public school board agenda did not identify the nature of the possible real estate transaction.

Hall didn�t do anything drastic like give the Mitchell media a blow-by-blow account of what occurred during the executive session after it was held.

Attorney General Mark Barnett said that nothing in state law places a criminal penalty on a board member who reveals the contents of a closed session.

�In order for there to be a criminal penalty, the Legislature would have to draft specific language and add it to this chapter,� said Barnett, referring to the state statutes on open meetings and executive sessions.

We�d love to see open meetings laws in South Dakota strengthened, but not in this direction.

We recognize that public government boards need to maintain a certain degree of integrity.

Our hope is that it doesn�t do this at the expense of keeping its constituents informed of the public�s business.

We know that, at times, the public�s right to know is viewed as mainly an inconvenience by some local government boards in the state. These governing bodies are known to discuss things in executive session that should be talked about in an open meeting.

There�s also an attitude by some in South Dakota � an attitude that�s rather draconian in nature � that doesn�t bode well for the public.

Henry Kosters of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota wrote this in a recent newsletter to school board members:

�(School) board meetings are in fact meetings of the school board in public. They are not public meetings. A patron does not automatically have the right to speak on an issue ?�

Talk about overkill.

We know there are situations when privacy at meetings is allowed by law.

In a perfect world, public boards like school boards and city councils would be prohibited from closing meetings to the people for any reason.

This attitude, we know, is also overkill.

Perhaps this issue involving Hall couldn�t have occurred at a better time. The state Legislature will be convening soon. It has major budget problems to tackle.

We hope, though, that it will find time to fine tune the state�s rather weak open meetings laws. Too many public boards aren�t afraid to abuse executive sessions, because there�s no teeth in the law.

State laws that dictate the ways public boards conduct meetings must strike a delicate balance. They must protect the integrity of the governing entity without ignoring the rights of citizens to be informed of public business.

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