Open meetings commission issues first decisions

Open meetings commission issues first decisions By South Dakota Newspaper Assn A commission created to determine if local governments illegally do their business behind closed doors filed its first decisions July 11.

The South Dakota Open Meetings Commission publicly reprimanded the Herrick Board of Trustees, Davison County Commission and Gregory School Board. All of the cases dealt with abuses of closed-door meetings except in the Herrick case where the Board of Trustees met without giving notice.

"We had interesting discussions because these were the first cases," said Vince Foley, who serves as commission chairman and is also the state�s attorney for Codington County.

The 2004 Legislature created the Open Meetings Commission made up of five state�s attorneys based on recommendations from Attorney General Larry Long�s Government Openness Task Force. It provides another option for local state�s attorneys to use when they receive complaints of open meeting violations. By forwarding the complaints to the commission the state�s attorneys can avoid criminally prosecuting local school, county and city officials. Violating the open meetings law is a Class 2 misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $200 fine.

South Dakota law requires meetings of local governments to be open, but allows closed sessions for discussions of personnel, student records, pending or ongoing lawsuits, proprietary trade information and contract negotiations.

If a local board is found in violation of the law by the commission it receives a public reprimand and then cannot be subjected to any other prosecution.

"There's been a lot of interest in these cases, not only for the parties that are affected but from government officials on the local level and at the state level," Foley said. "Hopefully they'll provide guidance into the future for the questions they answer."

Attorney General Larry Long shared a similar opinion.

"As each decision is entered everybody, board members and lawyers and the public are all going to have a body of decisions that they can go to for guidance on how the open meetings law can be interpreted and how it can be applied and how guidance can by given to the media and board members," he said.

In January the Gregory School Board considered a consolidation plan during an executive session that was convened to discuss personnel and contract negotiations. The open meetings commission issued a reprimand because the board went beyond the scope of the original executive session. The school board admitted it violated the open meetings law during an April 25 meeting of the commission.

"I'm very satisfied with the outcome," said Mona Taggart, a reporter for the Gregory Times-Advocate who filed the original complaint against the school board. "I think it is time that people take an active role in their local government entities and start asking for accountability."

"I was very impressed with the professionalism of the commission," she added.

The commission�s decision did not surprise George Johnson, an attorney for the school board.

"That's what we expected and that�s probably what the school board deserved," Johnson said. "They made a mistake and we�ve admitted the mistake."

Having the complaint considered by the open meetings commission was the right step to take, Johnson said, versus having the board face criminal charges.

"I'm glad that wasn't done in this case because I don't think it was necessary in this case," he said. "For the violation that took place we had exactly the right process."

The commission has yet to rule on a case involving the city of Lead. Foley said he didn't think it would take as long to make that decision as it did for the three cases ruled on July 11. The commission heard testimony on all four cases April 25. Another case involving the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority is pending. The authority was created to manage converting the former Homestake Gold Mine in Lead into an underground science laboratory. The commission has not set a time to hear testimony on that case.

Taggart said she hoped the commission process made people more aware of the open meetings law and the actions of their local governments.

"It's the people that vote these people in, it's the people that pay their wages and it�s the people they need to be accountable to," she said.

Groups like the South Dakota Municipal League and the Associated School Boards of South Dakota provide training for new government officials on how the open meetings law works. Long's office has received an increased number of invitations to speak to those groups on the open meetings law, especially since the Government Openness Task Force was formed. His office also has taken more calls about how to properly interpret the open meetings law since the open meetings commission was formed.

"I think this is going to work," he said. "I think this is going to advance the bar. We're better off than we used to be."

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