God bless the Harrisburg School Board members

God bless the Harrisburg School Board members
Bull-headed, bad-mannered, bungling bandicoots that they are, they've done more for the cause of open government in South Dakota than years worth of logical reasoning.

And they did it in the simplest of ways: They mucked around with Harrisburg' children by firing the popular high school principal.

What started as a local dispute now seems certain to draw legislative action in ways that only can benefit all South Dakotans.

The school board's tussle with parents over firings and resignations isn't new. Neither is the charge that board members violated the state's open-meetings law.

But now legislators have been drug into this cesspool. And the only action legislators can take is to, well, legislate.

Two of them found a ticked-off crowd at a recent meeting, folks who thought the school board did them dirty � and violated the law at the same time � by voting to let high school Principal Keith Huber's contract lapse. Without telling parents what was going on. Without even giving parents an opportunity to speak against the decision before it was made.

The whole mess provides a crystal clear illustration of what's wrong with South Dakota's open-meetings law:

State Rep. Hal Wick, R-Sioux Falls, believes the board violated the law by holding an improper closed meeting. Wick, though he voted in the last session against creating an open-government commission, surely realizes that even if the board broke the law, it did so with impunity. No public official ever has been prosecuted in the history of the law � more than 40 years.

State Rep. Shantel Krebs, R-Sioux Falls, doesn't believe the board broke the law. But she concedes the law could use some tinkering � maybe to require recording of closed meetings, just to prove what really happened, if there's a dispute. Now, such disputes are he said/she said affairs, with no real proof on either side.

And the Harrisburg voters and taxpayers now know what good-government advocates have known all along. They're helpless. They can try to use a complicated recall procedure to get rid of offending elected officials. Or they can wait until the next election � assuming the bad guys are up for re-election. But nothing can force the Harrisburg School Board � or any other public body � to comply with the law.

What next? A better, more responsive and enforceable law. And what we need isn't rocket science.

We need a presumption of openness, not a presumption of secrecy.

All government bodies � and bodies they appoint or any organization dealing with any public funds � need to be covered.

We need reasonable exceptions, so things that really ought to remain confidential remain so.

We can't let ignorance of the law be excused, as it has for so many years. We explain away violations of the open-meetings law, saying, "Well, they're just part-time elected officials. We can't expect them to know all the laws." Yes, we can.

All closed meetings must be recorded, to determine if the law was violated. A judge can hear the recordings, so if there really was confidential information, it needn't become public.

Repeal the criminal penalty � now a Class 2 misdemeanor � and replace it with a civil penalty that's easier to levy. The criminal penalty is one reason no one ever has been prosecuted by state's attorneys who run in the same political circles as other elected officials. And stiff penalties for repeated violations. Those could include removal from office.

We need a streamlined complaint process that results in quick determinations. With the meetings being recorded, that should be easy. That way voters and taxpayers don't have to wait months and months for a decision.

William Jennings Bryan offered a simple but eloquent defense of openness: "The government being the people's business, it necessarily follows that its operations should be at all times open to the public view."

But that won't happen without a good law to ensure it. Right now, we have no such workable law.

Thanks to the Harrisburg School Board, that could change. Legislators � and average South Dakotans � are seeing just what an inadequate law we have to ensure good and open government.

God bless 'em.

Chuck Baldwin, 54, is Journalist in Residence at the Al Neuharth Media Center on The University of South Dakota campus. He is president of South Dakotans for Open Government.

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