Task force tackles proposal for appealing records denials

Task force tackles proposal for appealing records denials
Attorney General Larry Long met with members of his Open Government Task Force in Mitchell on Nov. 8 to discuss developing an appeals process for people who are denied access to public records.

"We want to make this simple. We want this process to be accessible, not only to the media, but to everybody," Long said.

He explained the proposed legislation, saying the process for dispute resolution would be similar to that of small claims court.

Long convened the task force this past summer to look at the state's laws regarding public access to government records and information. The task force is comprised of representatives from state and local governments, the news media, businesses, law enforcement and attorneys. The group has been meeting monthly since August.

Under Long's appeals process, public record officers, such as county auditors and city finance officers, would have 10 days to process a record request.

Upon receiving a request for a record, a public record officer would have three options. First, the officer could provide the record if there is no argument that the record is public. Second, the officer could simply acknowledge the request was received and give a reasonable time estimate of when the record will be available. Third, the officer could deny the request if it is believed to be confidential information.

If access to the record is denied, the person making the request then could appeal the decision to the state's office of hearing examiners.

Mitchell's city attorney, Randy Stiles, attended the task force meeting. He said, "The attorney general has certainly worked to streamline a process we can all live with."

Stiles said Long's proposal would not affect his job as city attorney. "If anything, it will simplify things," he said.

Some of the discussion at the Nov. 8 meeting focused on broadening the state's basic law regarding access to government records.

"I'm looking for a definition," said Mark Roby, publisher of the Watertown Public Opinion. Roby said he thinks the focus should be on changing the current definition of open records, which states that a record is only public if it is required to be kept by law.

Long said he has been told the governor and legislative leadership are combining forces to draft legislation that would encompass the issues identified in an open government report the attorney general's office wrote last summer.

Not all task force members were comfortable relying on another entity to introduce a bill that could redefine open records.

"Too much time and effort has been put in by the attorney general's office and everyone involved for us to rely upon other legislation," said David Bordewyk, general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association. "I'm not fully comfortable with this group saying, 'Someone else is taking care

of this, so we can go home now.' We need to keep a dialogue going."

State Sen. Nancy Turbak, D-Watertown, serves on the task force. "Invite everybody to the table. Let's sit down and see what the governor and leadership have and find out what we have to work with," she said.

Assistant Attorney General Scott Swier said, "This is a big animal. It's such a large issue, and we've tried to take all issues into account, piece

by piece."

Swier said he thinks the task force has made significant progress and that it has been a positive experience for everybody involved.

Tena Haraldson, chief of bureau for The Associated Press in South Dakota, said the attorney general's proposal is definitely a step in the right direction. She said the task force is addressing the procedural part of the open records debate, but she'd like to see a few more concerns addressed, including the current definition of a public record.

The Open Government Task Force will meet in Pierre on Dec. 5 at 10 a.m.

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