Dialing it in

Dialing it in
These days, there's an empty chair in the meeting room of the courthouse in Vermillion when the Clay County Commission meets.

Its usual occupant – Commissioner Mary Jensen – still participates in the proceedings, even though she isn't physically present.

She does so by calling the courthouse from over 1,000 miles away.


Thanks to a combination of modern technology and South Dakota law, Jensen is allowed to take part in commission meetings via teleconference while spending the winter in Florida.

She was last physically present at a commission meeting in Vermillion on Nov. 13.

According to officials at the courthouse, she and her husband are spending the winter in South Pasadena, FL.

That didn't stop her from taking part in the Nov. 27 meeting, or in this week's gathering of commissioners, held Tuesday.

The Nov. 27 commission meeting was called to order at 8:30 a.m., according to minutes that appeared on the public notice page of the Dec. 7 Plain Talk.

Jensen missed the first 30 minutes of the meeting. She joined the proceedings via telephone at 9 a.m., in time to participate in an executive session.

By the time the Jensens return to Clay County, spring will have arrived in South Dakota. Clay County Auditor Ruth Bremer said Jensen has informed the commission that she wouldn't be back until sometime in April.

While absent, she will still be compensated by local taxpayers. Clay County commissioners receive $900 per month, or $9,840 annually.

They also receive health insurance benefits.

South Dakota state law 1-25-1, which deals with meetings of public agencies, allows Jensen to be absent but still be counted as present when commissioners gather.

The law states, in part, "Meetings, including executive or closed meetings, may be conducted by teleconference. Members shall be deemed present if they answer present to the roll call taken by teleconference. Any vote at a meeting held by teleconference shall be taken by roll call."

Assistant Attorney General Diane Best of Pierre notes that the law doesn't define the circumstances of when it should be used.

"I know it (the teleconferencing law) is used, but I don't have any observations about whether it would violate the spirit of the law," she said.

Dave Bordewyk, executive director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association in Pierre, has worked over the years to strengthen open meetings laws to allow the media better access to government information.

In his opinion, the teleconferencing provision of the law isn't designed to allow office holders to take vacations.

"Even though this situation perhaps doesn't violate the actual law, I think it violates the spirit of the law," Bordewyk said. "The open meetings law is intended to encourage and promote openness and participation in public meetings. Times have changed and technology has changed, and so the law allows for teleconferences to be set up. But I don't think when the law was changed, it was meant for this type of situation."

Bordewyk said the law has changed over time to allow certain government agencies to, for one thing, overcome the vast nature of South Dakota.

Members of the state Board of Regents, he noted, live in communities across the state.

"The Regents can hold a special teleconference meeting when needed, not where someone is absent for months at a time," Bordewyk said, "and allow them just to sort of dial in at their convenience at a public meeting.

"There's a lot more that goes into participating in a public board or being an elected official than just participating in a meeting," he said. "You also have to be available and be responsive to those who you represent all of the time, outside of the meeting format itself."

The state law doesn't include limitations that define which boards are or aren't able to use teleconferencing, Best said.

"Any state or local entity that's subject to the open meetings law is entitled to use that telephone or video process," she said. "If it was intended for citizen boards with members who live in various parts of the state, it would be limited to just that, but it does apply to local government as well."

Best said the law doesn't address which circumstances are particularly fitting for it to be used.

"The law does not address what kind of circumstances are appropriate for telephone conference versus requiring them (public officials) to appear personally," she said. "There isn't a check list that says, 'If there is a blizzard, you can do telephone conference, but if it's not and you're residing within the county, then you have to appear personally.' It (the law) doesn't have that type of criteria in it. Right now, it's silent on this issue."

Best said the South Dakota Open Meetings Commission hasn't issued any rulings or received any complaints concerning this topic.

The flexibility of the law is great for unique circumstances, Bordewyk said.

"But to be used over a period of time for the course of several meetings and several months, I think, abuses what the law intended," he said. "I think it goes beyond what residents and taxpayers of a certain entity, in this case, a county, would expect from their elected officials."

Bordewyk said South Dakota was ahead of its time when it amended its open meetings law to allow teleconferencing. He believes the change was made in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

"In some respects, we're ahead of the curve in recognizing the (teleconferencing) technology," he said. "At the same time, I don't think anybody intended for it to be used in this type of situation when they put in the law in South Dakota."

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