Open meetings panel debates open doors, closed doors

Determining which school building doors were open and which doors were locked during a school board meeting factored into the South Dakota Open Meetings Commission's decision regarding a complaint filed against the Willow Lake School Board.

Ultimately, the Open Meetings Commission decided unanimously at a Dec. 7 meeting in Sioux Falls that the Willow Lake School Board did not violate the open meetings law during an emergency Feb. 23 meeting.

Marshall Edleman of Willow Lake had filed a complaint that the Willow Lake board violated the open meetings law on three different occasions.

The open meetings panel did agree that the Willow Lake board violated the open meetings law by not posting any agenda in advance of meetings on Dec. 21, 2010, and Jan. 11, 2011.

During those two meetings, school board members met with school staff and administrators to discuss the district's financial problems and hear staff concerns.

Edleman's attorney, Scott Swier, argued that the board had violated the law during the Feb. 23 meeting because a primary entrance to the school was locked while the special meeting was going on.

Commission member John Steele asked Swier if any other doors to the school building were open during the meeting.

Swier said there was another door open, but it was not a "primary access door" to the school.

Commission members were in agreement that the issue of the primary entrance used by the public to enter the school building being locked did not rise to the level of an open meetings law violation.

In a series of four complaints brought by Betty Breck of Groton against the Aberdeen City Council and the Aberdeen Planning Commission, the open meetings panel decided that no violations had occurred in three instances while a fourth complaint did merit a reprimand for violation of the law.

The city of Aberdeen did not challenge the fourth complaint, admitting that a quorum of council members did meet without notifying the public or news media in advance. City officials said they contacted the local newspaper once they realized they had not given advance notice of the July 27, 2009, meeting.

Three of Breck's complaints focused on whether or not agendas posted by the city should have been visible to the public for a full 24 hours in advance of the meetings.

State law requires the 24-hour advance posting notice, but the bulk of the debate before the Open Meetings Commission was about if the law means the agenda must only be posted 24 hours in advance of the meeting or if the law means the agenda must be visible to the public for a full 24 hours leading up to the meeting.

Breck argued that the city was violating the law because she could not view the meeting agenda at city hall after the offices had closed for the day.

Keith Jensen of Brookings testified in favor of Breck. As the general manager of South Dakota Newspaper Association during the 1980s and early 1990s, he lobbied for legislation in Pierre to require the agenda-posting requirements in the open meetings laws.

Jensen told the Open Meetings Commission that legislators who approved the agenda-posting requirements meant for it to be visible to the public for a full 24 hours in advance of a meeting. Jensen gave panel members notarized statements signed by five legislators who voted in 1990 on the bill requiring the 24-hour notice.

But a majority of Open Meetings Commission members were reluctant to side with Breck and Jensen, in large part because the panel had decided in a 2008 case involving the Brown County Commission that the law was not violated because the posted meeting agenda was not visible to the public after normal business hours when the courthouse was closed.

Commission member Steele argued unsuccessfully to his colleagues that the panel had made a mistake in the 2008 Brown County Commission decision.

In another case, the commission reprimanded the Silver Creek Township Board in Sanborn County for failing to post a notice for a May 2 meeting by two township board supervisors to discuss a road maintenance situation.

The two supervisors said they didn't think a meeting notice was necessary because the road maintenance problem involved an expenditure of less than $2,500.

Open Meetings Commission members said the monetary thresholds were about compliance with state bidding laws, not the open meetings laws.

Before adjourning, the commission voted to make Lisa Rothschadl the panel chairman for the coming year. She is the Bon Homme County state's attorney.

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