A little sunshine on government is a good thing

A bill in the South Dakota Legislature that would require all official meetings of government boards and commissions to include time on their agendas for public comment is headed to Governor Dennis Daugaard’s desk. Legislators have already okayed it.
House Bill 1172 appears straightforward and may beg the question: why is it even necessary? A fair question to ask during this week, which is Sunshine Week, a national observance to shine a light on the public’s right to know about government and what government does.
A survey of newspaper editors and reporters across the state shows that, while many government boards already include time on their meeting agendas for public comment, others do not. Often when the meeting topic or agenda item is controversial and there is a room full of people, the inclination may be to not allow public debate out of concern that the meeting will get out of hand.
Civic engagement; that is what citizens are doing when they step to the microphone during a public meeting to voice an opinion or ask a question. Civic engagement is fundamental to good government, citizens participating in their government.
It all begins with government being transparent and open. Without that, citizens’ participation in the democratic process is hampered. Without access to information about what government is doing, a vacuum is created and citizens are left to wonder.
Over the years South Dakota has made government more open and transparent. Daugaard has initiated several measures that help citizens gain access to government information easier and quicker. The legislature has passed various open government bills as well in recent years.
But more work remains to be done in our state. During this legislative session lawmakers shot down proposals to make public the official correspondence – including emails – of government officials, something that is commonplace in most every other state in the country. Legislators also defeated a bill to make government settlement agreements a public record, despite high-profile examples of problems related to secret settlements around the state. While some legislators supported the concept that settlements involving taxpayer dollars should be public, they were not comfortable with making victims’ names public.
Lurching ahead in fits and starts – such is open government in South Dakota. There is no finish line or end game. Bolstering the public’s right to know is an ongoing, never-ending challenge that requires persistence and work by everyone.
We all have a stake in supporting good government. And good government begins with strong laws that favor openness and transparency. Those laws generally fall into three categories: public records laws, open meetings laws and public notices laws.
Public records laws define what government records and documents are available to the public and what records are confidential. Open meetings laws guide government boards and commissions on how to notify the public about their meetings and how to conduct those meetings in public. Public notices laws dictate that certain government information such as meeting minutes or bid notices be made available to the public, typically through publication in a newspaper.
This is an election year. South Dakotans will vote for a governor, various constitutional officers and 105 legislators this fall. We must urge all candidates for public office to commit to making our open government laws better and stronger in South Dakota. Good government depends on it.
Besides, a little sunshine on government is always a good thing.
David Bordewyk is executive director for South Dakota Newspaper Association, which represents the state’s 125 week and daily newspapers. Bordewyk has lobbied on behalf of SDNA for 23 years. 

The Pioneer Review

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