Nature of complaint clears Brown County board

Nature of complaint clears Brown County board By Tara Lynn Okeson
SDNA  The S.D. Open Meetings Commission (OMC) decided unanimously Nov. 12 not to reprimand the Brown County Commission after it failed to provide proper notice of a public meeting. The OMC is a panel of state's attorneys that hear and rule on complaints of possible violations of the open meetings law. The group decided on five cases at the meeting, issuing one public reprimand for a violation committed in Kingsbury County. The agenda for the Sept. 9 Brown County Commission meeting, according to testimony by Brown County State's Attorney Kim Dorsett, was posted the afternoon prior to the 8:45 Tuesday morning meeting. State law requires meeting notification of public boards to be posted at least 24 hours in advance. Betty Breck of Groton filed the complaint against the Brown County Commission, citing that it failed to post the agenda in a visible place, because it was posted inside the courthouse and could not be seen by the public after hours. Because Breck's complaint did not address the time the notice was posted, but rather where it was posted, OMC Chairman John Steele said it was not something the panel needed to take into consideration. In another case decided by the open meetings commission, three members of the Kingsbury County Commission violated the state's open meetings law when they discussed budgetary matters. Kingsbury County Commissioner Jerry Ellingson filed a complaint against three fellow commissioners, claiming proper notification was not given for a meeting involving Ryan Schoenfelder, Jeff Madison, Roger Lee and the county auditor. Schoenfelder defended the meeting, saying, "There was no business conducted. It was [intended] to be a learning session." The OMC decided on a 3-2 vote that the commissioners held an illegal meeting because notification was not given and the board members discussed county business. A decision made earlier this year will stand after a request to reconsider a case against the Mitchell City Council was denied. The commission said the city council did not violate the law when it went into executive session to discuss potential litigation. Under state law, public boards may go into closed meetings to consult with legal counsel about proposed or pending litigation. Chairman Steele said the open meetings law asserts that there is an attorney-client privilege for public bodies. "I'm just very uncomfortable saying that a public body cannot get the advice of its attorney in private," he said. The OMC drew a line on what constitutes a public board in a case against the University of South Dakota Students' Association. The board was accused of breaking the law when it voted to impeach the student body president during a closed session. Commission members came to the consensus that student government organizations should not be subject to the open meetings law, therefore no violation occurred. In a complaint to the Codington County state's attorney, the Watertown Public Opinion claimed official action was taken to raise utility rates during a special meeting of the Watertown City Finance Committee Aug. 10, 2007. No public notice was given for the meeting, but the commission said it takes six council members to make a quorum, and only five members and the mayor were present. The OMC said the Butte County Commission didn't violate the open meetings law when the board appointed a new director of equalization Sept. 3 – a decision that was later rescinded for cautionary purposes. One case is pending against three members of the Roberts County Commission. The complaint, filed in March 2006, alleges the commissioners held an informal meeting without complying with the open meetings law.

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