Presumption of openness important in South Dakota By Dave Knudson (R-Sioux Falls)
Majority leader of South Dakota Senate We live in an information age and our citizens deserve access to information about how our local and state governments operate and spend the taxpayers' money. In 2008, the South Dakota Legislature considered two major proposals in the area of open records. I was the prime sponsor on Senate Bill 186 and Sen. Nancy Turbak Berry, D-Watertown, was the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 187. The two bills offered competing solutions for the thorny issue of which of the state's records should be open and which should be closed. Everyone in the debate recognizes that the state and local governments possess large amounts of personal information on their citizens. We also recognize that citizens have a reasonable expectation that the government will retain that personal information as private and confidential. Easy examples of this would include Social Security information, information with regard to bank accounts, computer and other passwords, and similar items. Turbak Berry's bill in 2008 included a presumption of openness and then the balance of her bill created a series of exceptions. Her bill did not incorporate the existing law of any other state. SB 186, prime sponsored by then-Rep. Larry Rhoden, R–Union Center, and me, did not include a presumption of openness but included the opening of some records and the retention of exceptions to close other records. In our bill, we also did not incorporate the law of an existing state. My bill also included a second part which established a process for resolving disputes over open records. In the end, Turbak Berry's bill failed to pass the Legislature and the open records portion of my bill failed to pass the Legislature, but the portion of my bill which established the process for resolving disputes was adopted. That action set the stage for this year's open records bill. Over the course of the summer and fall, I have talked to a number of newspaper and electronic media representatives as well as ordinary citizens. It became clear to me that we did need to make a substantial change in our open records law but that we would be best served by combining a presumption of openness along with a set of exceptions that were taken virtually word for word from an existing state's statutes so that we know that the language we are using has? had a successful trial run. In Senate Bill 147, which I have introduced into this year's Legislature, I have copied the open records provisions of Nebraska. Nebraska's open records law is fairly short, has been around for more than a couple of decades, and works well. Both media representatives and Nebraska citizens appear to be comfortable with the provisions of their open records law. SB 147 includes the Nebraska presumption of openness, which says every record maintained by a state or local government is open to public inspection, and then combines that with a laundry list of 17 exceptions taken from the Nebraska statute. In addition, I had some concerns in just a few cases the Nebraska exceptions were not clear enough and did not provide enough protection for our citizens so I did incorporate three sections from Washington's open records statutes in this bill. Finally, the bill also amends certain portions of our existing open records laws in order to make the new language with the presumption of openness and the Nebraska exceptions fit into our existing statute more smoothly. As I write this, SB 147 unanimously passed the Senate. Since the bill was introduced, I have received a large flow of comments and suggested amendments from a variety of governmental sources. Most of the proposed amendments relate to adding additional exceptions. The Senate amended the bill to add additional exceptions allowing selected records to remain private but only in those areas where our citizens would expect us to preserve the privacy of their records. Although there are still some unresolved issues, I will not, nor do I think the Legislature will support any amendments which touch the presumption of openness. I believe our citizens will be well served by passage of SB147 which will ensure the openness and availability to inspection of state and local records while at the same time preserving the confidentiality of those records which our citizens can reasonably expect to be private.