Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary by Chuck Baldwin I still remember the first time I bought a house and came to grips with the idea that more was involved than just price and number of bedrooms.

My list of questions to ask grew almost by the minute:


* Schools � where and how good?


* Zoning history of the area.


* Crime in the neighborhood.


* Age of most nearby homeowners and how many kids they had � as well as their church affiliation and occupations.


* Local taxes.


* Background on the city council and school board.


* Flooding, street repair program, city inspection problems, rental/ownership ratio.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

All the information was available, fortunately. From the local census data, from the school district, from city hall, from the police department, from the county commission, from the library, from the local newspaper. I consider myself lucky. The state's open meetings/records laws (in Texas) and a general history of government openness worked to my advantage. That isn't the case everywhere for home-buyers. Or accident and crime victims. Or parents. Or taxpayers. Or voters. Or geneologists. Or any of the other myriad people who need information from government.

And that's exactly why we're observing Sunshine Week March 13-19. Librarians, journalists and others are joining to promote a week of discussion on the public's right of access to government information.

Here in South Dakota, efforts have been guided this week by South Dakotans for Open Government, the South Dakota Library Association, the South Dakota Association of Broadcasters, the Freedom Forum and the South Dakota Newspaper Association's First Amendment Committee.

There's never been an effort like this. And we wouldn't have it now, if there wasn't such a need.

Nationwide, there's a wide-ranging debate on how privacy and homeland security conflict � or if they do � with open government. That's playing out in South Dakota, too, where we have the additional baggage of a long history of government secrecy:


* We have an open meetings law that not once in about four decades has been enforced and no comprehensive open records law at all. Want a record? Maybe you can get it and maybe you can't. But nothing in any law says you have the right to know why it's being denied. And if it is denied, there's no recourse except to file a lawsuit and hope. No one even knows what records are kept by government.


* Until recently, it was a felony for government officials to talk about state investigations.


* Until the law was changed last year � after a monthslong effort � South Dakotans didn't even have a right to know about crimes committed next door. The new law gives us only the right to a bare minimum of information.


* If not for geneologists deluging legislators with phone calls, letters and e-mails, we'd have a new state law right now that would have kept secret basic information about births and deaths and marriages and divorces. That, at least, is an example of the progress we're making � though it's ever so slow. There's at least an awareness now that some South Dakotans � other than journalists � think government should be open. Attorney General Larry Long helped start that, with his open government task force that led to several minor changes in laws – including he one on crime information.

But it's a difficult road, made more difficult by politicians and bureaucrats who view government as their own private enterprise.

It's not.

Not for the hundreds of South Dakotans who every week attend meetings to hear about zoning and taxing issues.

Not for the hundreds of South Dakotans who attend court proceedings and seek police reports of accidents and other incidents.

Not for the hundreds of South Dakotans who need information on vehicle ownership, bankruptcies, building permits, taxes, licenses, home prices and ownership, school test scores, school construction and the pay of elected officials.

That's what this is all about. It's South Dakotans having the information they need to participate in government, conduct business, buy homes. It's Sunshine Week.

Chuck Baldwin is secretary of South Dakotans for Open Government page editor of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Contact him at (605) 331-2326 or by e-mail at cbaldwin@argusleader.com.

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