State needs open government fix-it list

This week is Sunshine Week, a national observance to highlight the importance of openness and transparency in government and freedom of information laws.
Newspaper editors originated Sunshine Week in 2005, but all of us have a stake in open government. Knowing what government is doing and how it is spending taxpayer money is fundamental in a democracy and a cornerstone for good government at all levels.
In South Dakota, newspapers have pitched in each year to spotlight Sunshine Week. Newspaper editors and reporters in our state have long been frustrated by weaknesses in our open meetings and open records laws. In short, we’ve made some progress over the years, but we have a long, long way to go before South Dakota can be considered a beacon for openness in government. From my point of view, this year’s legislative session saw passage of two bills that strengthen open government in our state.
One was House Bill 1087, which clarified how government boards may use a certain provision in the open meetings law for “executive session” or closed-door meetings. The executive-session provision has to do with discussions related to certain security and safety threats faced by government entities.
In 2019, the Belle Fourche City Council used the provision to discuss replacement of an HVAC system in a city-owned building. The editor at the Black Hills Pioneer newspaper challenged it, filing a complaint as allowed by law. Ultimately, the state Open Meetings Commission ruled the city’s use of the executive-session provision was valid, given how the statute was worded.  HB1087 was introduced to fix the wording in the open meetings law. The bill was approved unanimously by legislators and signed by Gov. Noem. Not a huge step forward, but an important one.
The other bill this session was House Bill 1075, brought by the state’s newspapers to modernize some of the laws regarding legal newspapers and publication of public notices in newspapers. Perhaps the most important provision in the bill is that newspapers will now be required to post all government notices printed in the newspaper — local city, school and county board minutes, for example — to a website that is archivable and searchable. The site— — is maintained by the state’s newspapers through SDNA.
When newspaper editors gathered in Pierre in January during the legislative session, Gov. Noem was asked what she would like to see happen to improve open government in South Dakota. She responded by challenging editors and others to give her a list of suggestions.
We will be happy to do so.  
The list could include specific suggestions such as requiring all state boards and commissions to record their meetings for the public to much more sweeping changes such as addressing weaknesses in our open meetings and open records laws.
For example, let’s tighten the laws regarding closed-door meetings by public boards. Over the years, the use of executive sessions to discuss “personnel” or “legal matters” has been abused. It’s time to rein it in.
Our open records laws have a lengthy laundry list of exceptions for when government can keep information confidential. Let’s open up access to law enforcement records such as certain investigative records, as well as government correspondence and email. Those are tall order items, but certainly not unreasonable. Look to the many other states that already allow public access to those types of records. The sky hasn’t fallen.
I could go on, but for now I invite you to tell me what open government issues you think should be addressed in our state. Be specific. Send them to me at
Open government requires strong freedom of information laws, but ultimately it’s the commitment and willingness of those who govern that makes open government more than just an ideal touted once a year during Sunshine Week.
 David Bordewyk is the executive director at South Dakota Newspaper Association, which represents the state’s 115 newspapers.

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