Open records are no slam dunk

Open records are no slam dunk
From comments I hear around the state, it would be easy to believe open-records legislation – making government more accessible to the South Dakotans who pay for it – is a slam-dunk this session.

Don't believe it. When legislators – or the governor – say they're philosophically behind the idea of good government/opening government, the devil is in the details and misunderstandings. For instance, Attorney General Larry Long's open government task force agreed on one bill but couldn't agree on another.

Some of the sticking points, clearly, were misunderstandings.

A recent conversation with Gov. Mike Rounds illustrates that beautifully.

Rounds identified his key concerns about any potential legislation:

  • That a presumption of government openness (while specifying what should be closed) might unintentionally make public documents that really ought to be secret. No, that's one reason a bill drafted by Attorney General Larry Long has an appeals process, just so that doesn't happen.
  • That opening more records to South Dakotans will make more work for public employees, ultimately costing taxpayers more money. No. One bill drafted by Long – the one his task force couldn't agree on – actually made the whole open-records thing easier to understand for everyone and provided only for the release of documents already kept. Under the appeals process, if a particular request is burdensome, that cost can be passed along to the person who wants the information.
  • That businesses might find secret information out before the public. No, that's why statutes already address proprietary business information. It's already spelled out to everyone's satisfaction.
  • That he and other public employees might have to let the public in on public business conducted through e-mails and letters, causing South Dakotans to quit contacting him about their concerns. No, South Dakotans aren't afraid of voicing their opinions. And besides, there's the appeals process.

    Long's draft legislation creates that appeals process, spelling out how a South Dakotans should go about asking for information. It provides a way to determine whether something is secret, if there's a dispute. And it allows government bodies and agencies to be reimbursed – reasonably – for costs associated with such requests.

    What would the other bill have done? Very simple. It would have clarified what government information is open and what's closed.

    Make no mistake: Neither bill was perfect. South Dakotans shouldn't be shut out of government. Period.

    But now with one of Long's key bills out of consideration – and differing opinions on what was wrong with it – the Republican leadership of the Legislature is preparing its own bill or bills, apparently drawn to the satisfaction of Rounds. The Democratic leadership is doing the same thing.

    Before it's all said and done, we could have several open-records bills floating through the Legislature – with misunderstandings, like those of Rounds, about all of them.

    So here are some requests for legislators:

  • Please keep South Dakotans in mind. They vote. They pay the bills. It's their government.
  • Don't take just one person's word for what a bill does or doesn't do. Read the bill and ask other people. There are facts, there are perceptions and there are misunderstandings. Go for the facts.
  • Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. If there's specific wording, or a section, that is bothersome, work it out.

    Remember, the goal is good government, open government, accessible government. Hard as it might be to believe, that's no slam dunk. There's still work to be done.

    Chuck Baldwin, 54, of Sioux Falls, is executive director of South Dakotans for Open Government. He also is journalist in residence for the Freedom Forum at the University of South Dakota.

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