New open records law puts S.D. on par with other states

New open records law puts S.D. on par with other states A landmark law that assumes government documents and records in South Dakota are open to the public unless there is a good reason to keep them secret took effect July 1. The new law was approved unanimously by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Mike Rounds earlier this year. It is one of many 2009 legislative bills became law this past Wednesday. All bills approved by the legislature and signed by the governor take effect July 1 of each year, unless legislators specify otherwise. The new open records law is the result of several years work by open government advocates and others in the state. It puts into state law a statement that citizens have a right to examine and access government records. It reverses the old state law that says government officials do not have to release information unless state law specifically required that a record be kept and maintained. South Dakota was one of only a few states in the country without a general presumption of public access to government information in its laws or constitution. The new South Dakota law includes categories of information that can be maintained confidentially by state and local government. Information such as certain law enforcement records, the correspondence, appointment and phone call logs of government officials, and medical records kept by government are among the exceptions. State Senate Majority Leader Dave Knudson (R-Sioux Falls) was a prime sponsor of the new open records law. He sees the effect of the new law in both the near term and further in the future. "In the short term, I think the biggest impact of the new law will be to dramatically increase the number of records, particularly records regarding governmental spending, that are open to public inspection," Knudson said. "In the long term, as units of local government become more accustomed to the new standards, I think the new law, with its presumption of openness, will produce a greater consistency across South Dakota in making governmental information available to the public."  Knudson has said that he expects the new law will need to be amended in the future. Knudson told a group of journalists in May that future legislation likely will focus some of the confidentiality exceptions in the new law. Chuck Baldwin, a longtime open government advocate, says the new law is a step forward but more works remains. "Our new open-records law cuts right to the heart of what had blocked South Dakotans' access to government for years. It states, in no uncertain terms, that all records kept by government are presumed open to the public," said Baldwin, a journalist in residence at the Al Neuharth Media Center at the University of South Dakota. "But we have to be realistic. This law is a compromise. In order to get that presumption of openness, we have to give up access to hundreds, maybe thousands, of records. The list of exemptions to openness in the law is staggering in both their breadth and detail. "Now, we need to work with legislators and the governor to make South Dakota truly open and make that presumption a reality for information South Dakotans need – on crime, economic development, the actions of local government and so much more." Among other open government laws taking effect July 1 is a requirement that government agencies will need to seek requests for proposals for certain professional services such as tourism promotion and that the proposals and contracts be maintained publicly online. Also, a searchable Web site of state financial records and information that Gov. Rounds had developed last year will now be required by law to be maintained.

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