Sunshine Week’s goal is a more open government

Sunshine Week's goal is a more open government
For several weeks, it seemed South Dakotans would have something to cheer about, when legislators finished work on several open government measures.

But as this year's Sunshine Week observance around the country is about to end, South Dakota remains almost as dark as ever.

Sunshine Week, held March 11-17, is set aside to emphasize the importance of open government. The observance remains as critical as ever.

That's not to say we failed on every account. There were successes, notably with the state Open Meetings Commission. Ruling in a case involving the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, the commission said a commonly used loophole in the state open meetings law doesn't exist. Government bodies can't close their doors to the public simply to discuss contracts. That's illegal, according to the commission.

And legislators, in fairness, helped some:

  • A bill that would have created a new loophole in the open meetings law was killed, if only because the underlying issue a township board wanted to keep secret is in the courts.
  • Marriage licenses now will be open again, thanks to a new law.
  • A bill was approved that – in most cases – will keep the juvenile monitor's report open to the public.
  • And a move to keep the accidents records of emergency personnel secret was sidetracked.

    But some of that success came about almost by accident, and in three key areas, legislators thumbed their noses at South Dakotans:

  • A campaign finance reform bill was approved but only after creating a loophole that still allows most legislative candidates to keep their campaign donations secret until after their election.
  • A proposed constitutional amendment that would have required legislative and committee sessions open was defeated.
  • The Senate agreed to create an Open Government Commission, specifically to review a study of records by Attorney General Larry Long and then recommend legislation next year to revise our open records statutes. The House, though, said we didn't need such a commission, and that we certainly didn't need to plan on a new law – no matter what the attorney general's study found, no matter what problems we've had in the past.

    Is there any hope? There's always hope, and in this legislative session South Dakotans gained two staunch allies – Republican Sen. Jason Gant of Sioux Falls and Democratic Sen. Nancy Turbak of Watertown. They understand that our current laws are weak and confusing, and that South Dakotans are being kept from information they need to be good citizens and good watchdogs of government.

    They and our other allies need support. Opponents of open government need a good Dutch uncle talk – and an education.

    Until legislators begin to understand the importance of public participation in government, Sunshine Week in South Dakota will remain an observance – rather than a celebration.

    The Plain Talk offers thanks to the South Dakota Newspaper Association for providing this guest commentary.

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