More often you hear, "I'm for open government, but ?"
That "but" is chilling, and it's the focus of the second annual Sunshine Week, being observed in South Dakota and around the country next week. The goal is to get people thinking about the importance of open government and eliminate that "but."
Frankly, it's a hard row to hoe in South Dakota.
Yes, we're consistently ranked toward the bottom of the nation in laws that mandate or promote open government.
But the truth of the matter is that most South Dakota taxpayers and voters just don't care that much. And we in the news media have to take a good measure of the blame for that, because for so many years we've portrayed this – intentionally or not – as journalists vs. elected officials.
As a result, we've allowed to evolve a state in which elected officials and bureaucrats too often see themselves in a private club, with a right to do the public's business behind closed doors.
And the public simply sees whiny journalists when we complain.
So let's set the record straight from here on out. It doesn't matter if you're a plumber or doctor or retailer or cattleman or hunter or bartender or journalist.
We all have a right to know what government is doing for us – and to us. Without that ability, we have no idea in the world if our bureaucrats and elected officials are doing what we want or not.
You shouldn't have to wait until your ox is gored to learn you were left out of the process. But just in case you think so, take a look at the past year:
- Some state contracts were taken from South Dakota businesses and given to out-of-state businesses. Was that fair? We'll never know, because Gov. Mike Rounds has declared the details secret. Secret from the losing bidders. Secret even from legislators.
- What about the sale of the state railroad? Legislators thought that might be a bad deal. But some details of the sale were declared secret.
- Genealogists and others in South Dakota praised a compromise in the 2005 legislative session that kept vital statistics – marriages, births, etc. – open to the public but also protected us from identity theft. But then the state Health Department, with the governor's blessing, closed access to those records, anyway. Genealogists and journalists were offered special exemptions. Journalists refused. Open government is for everyone, not just special classes of people.
- In Sioux Falls, the school's superintendent proposed closing meetings of committees that would decide on controversial issues such as sex education.
- Legislators this year overwhelmingly rejected opening more campaign finance records to the public. In Sioux Falls, the mayor refused to open some of his records until forced – saying he didn't have to.
- Legislators this year closed public access to concealed pistol permits, even though one county sheriff said making that information public had helped him in the past identify people who never should have had the permits. And he added that there never, ever had been problems with public access to those records.
- A new complaint that's sure to go before the state Open Meetings Commission charges – with what looks like good evidence – that the state Board of Regents consistently violated the state's open meetings law by meeting and deciding in secret on a controversial expansion of the USDSU campus in Sioux Falls.
By the way, even if the commission rules against the regents, there's no penalty. Any public body can violate the open meetings law without any penalty whatsoever. That's the law.
And if you want a public record – even though it's clearly open to the public by state statute – you can be refused. And you have no recourse.
That's the law.
Almost every day of the week, hundreds – if not thousands – of South Dakotans want to attend meetings or see public records. The issues range from taxes to zoning to crime to liquor licenses to school curriculum. And those same South Dakotans can be turned away. In fact, they have been.
Why? It's that private club syndrome. South Dakotans who seek to invade that club – find out what government is doing – are treated with suspicion and even contempt.
Yes, we've made progress here. But each move toward openness is a tiny, baby step, often accompanied with a couple of giant steps backward.
That's what Sunshine Week is all about. It's not government of the people, by the people and for the people, until the people – South Dakotans – are allowed in.
Allowed? No, we have that right, don't we? Unless we agree it ought to be a private club. Unless we agree there's no need to watch over government to see how our money is spent, what laws are made.
And there's no need to say, "Yes, but ?"
Chuck Baldwin is president of South Dakotans for Open Government, a sponsor of Sunshine Week. Contact him at (605) 331-2326 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.