March 13-19 declared Sunshine Week in South Dakota A special proclamation by Gov. Mike Rounds declaring March 13-19 Sunshine Week in South Dakota puts an official stamp on the national observance, even if the stroke of a pen doesn't guarantee open government. It does, however, generate publicity and create expectations.
"This recognizes the right of people in South Dakota … to participate openly in government," Rounds said as he signed the proclamation.
Sunshine Week is a national promotion spearheaded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the American Library Association, and the Radio Television News Directors Association. Simply, it's a week of publicity and discussion to highlight the importance of open government.
In South Dakota, leaders in the weeklong observance are South Dakotans for Open Government and the South Dakota Library Association.
"The drive for more security at home and the push for more democracy abroad make this a vital juncture for openness advocates," said Stewart Huntington, president of South Dakotans for Open Government and publisher of the Black Hills Pioneer newspaper in Spearfish.
"We must remember always that transparency and access are the underpinnings of a healthy, free society."
Deb Hagemeier, president of the library association, agreed and explained her organization is an important part of that effort.
"Libraries are fundamental to the free flow of information in South Dakota and across the nation," she said. "It is essential for citizens to be informed of government actions, policies and goals, so that our government can be held accountable."
That was echoed by Tim Waltner, publisher, Freeman Courier.
"This observance highlights the importance of all citizens' access to government," Waltner said. "That access is central to the ideals of freedom and liberty. Without it, how can a people be expected to make informed decisions?
"Unfortunately, too many people take this concept for granted � or worse � question its importance."
South Dakota has seen some good and bad with open government in the past few years. News stories have revealed secret pardons granted by former Gov. Bill Janklow, secrecy about complaints filed against physicians, secrecy of complaints filed against police officers and even the state Public Utilities Commission prevented � by law � from telling customers that the NorthWestern utility company was in serious financial trouble.
Even in the current session of the Legislature, there was a move to keep basic information � such as divorces and marriages � secret from the public.
There have been successes, too, some from Attorney General Larry Long's task force on open government. Legislation proposed by the task force was enacted into law to give South Dakotans a right to at least basic information concerning crimes in their communities, for instance. And a new commission was established to review complaints that government bodies violated the state open meeting law.
That commission has yet to rule on the several complaints before it, but Long said just its existence has benefits.
"We've had a number of phone calls and inquiries (on open meetings) from school boards and county commissions and city councils and their lawyers," Long said. "What we have accomplished … is a heightened awareness of the open meeting law and a heightened awareness of the people who give advice that something will happen if you don't comply."
Long's group now is going through the tedious process of determining what records the state keeps, with an eye to creating an all-encompassing open records law.
"We discovered stuff we didn't know we had," Long said.
Huntington said that while governors' proclamations can be routine, they also can highlight important issues, such as open government.
"Our efforts in South Dakota have just begun," he said. "Much needs to be done.
"Our state should be a national leader in terms of citizen access to the workings and records of government. Today we remain one of the most closed states in the union."
Waltner emphasized that this is an issue of concern to everyone, not just people in the news media.
"This is personal and local," he said. "It has everything to do with everyday things. It includes decisions on zoning in our cities and counties. It includes decisions on programs in our schools. It includes decisions on how laws are enforced and justice is administered."
Open government is basic, said Hagemeier.
"We believe our open government and intellectual freedom principles are what make America a strong, democratic nation," she said.