Northern Valley Beacon

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Saturday, January 28, 2006


The work to close South Dakota government from public knowledge intensifies

In the ranking of state governments by the Better Government Association according to their openness and accountability to the public, South Dakota comes in dead last. Recent developments in state government indicate that state officials are working to get even a more solid lock on that distinction.

Statehouse correspondent Bob Mercer, who has worked for the Aberdeen American News, the Rapid City Journal, and was Bill Janklow's press secretary, reveals more events today through which the state is shutting the people out of any knowledge of what is being done with their tax money, their property, and their lives.

The first item involves the governor's new mansion. It was built with private donations in what Mercer describes as a "plan to go around the Legislature." A selling point for that plan was that the mansion would have one side which is a private residence for the governor and the other side, complete with kitchen, would be for public use for meetings and dinners.

Mercer reports that the governor has taken direct control of the public side. "Members of his senior staff have repeatedly refused to provide information about who has been using it and for what purposes," Mercer writes. They are now insisting that the entire mansion is the governor's residence. Mercer points out that the governor's staff has repeatedly referred to the mansion as having a private and public side.

Mercer also brings up the lawsuit filed by the Argus Leader to obtain the names of people who attended the governor's annual pheasant hunt. Mercer writes, "It is an official state event put together by the state Department of Tourism and State Development." He reports that this year only team captains were given the names of participants and were instructed not to reveal the names.

The governor and Health Secretary Doneen Hollingsworth are working to further limit access to public records on deaths, births, marriages, and divorces. Mercer says that if you have noticed that such records are not appearing in your newspaper of late, this closing off of access is the reason.

Mercer says that the state tried to close access to the records last year by claiming that other states had done so for homeland security. Reporters and lobbyists showed legislators that this claim was not correct and the legislators decided not to close the records.

"Rather than uphold the spirit of the Legislature's decision last year, they have directed county officials to limit access." To see such records you have to show a photo ID, pay $10, but also know the name of the person listed on the record you want to see.

Mercer said that in a meeting with news editors and publishers, the governor and Secretary of Health held their position. Mercer says that news media may have to go to the courts to get the issue settled. This might require a lawsuit in each county.

We say it is time that state government be brought into court on its violations of open government. We will contribute to and raise funds to get it done.

When Gov. Rounds was in the Legislature, he carried the water in getting the gag law passed. That law provides a prison sentence for any official who reveals that the government is investigating any business suspected of fraud or other crimes against the people. Rounds has a record of keeping the public from knowing what is going on in state government.

The trend is to shut the public out of any information about what their government is doing and how it is performing, while at the same time it is gathering information about individuals and allowing corporations to use and sell that information.

One of the latest incidents of insider, secret government, also reported on by Bob Mercer, was plans made by regents Harvey Jewett and Terry Baloun about a new higher education campus in Sioux Falls. They did not inform their fellow regents or consult with the legislature. After they had done all the planning and organizing work in private, they suddenly sprung it on the public.

And when it comes to state government, we have to severely criticize the Democrats. Even if they don't have the votes to pass measures to restore openness and integrity to state government, they can tell their constituents and other people in the state that officials are suppressing information and taking away their right to know.

For starters, here are some of the statutes regarding open records:

1-27-1. Records open to inspection--Sale of lists. If the keeping of a record, or the preservation of a document or other instrument is required of an officer or public servant under any statute of this state, the officer or public servant shall keep the record, document, or other instrument available and open to inspection by any person during normal business hours. Any employment examination or performance appraisal record maintained by the Bureau of Personnel is excluded from this requirement.

1-26-2. Agency materials available for public inspection--Derogatory materials. Each agency shall make available for public inspection all rules, final orders, decisions, opinions, intra-agency memoranda, together with all other materials, written statements of policy or interpretations formulated, adopted, or used by the agency in the discharge of its functions. An agency shall hold confidential materials derogatory to a person but such information shall be made available to the person to whom it relates.
Source: SDC 1939, § 55.1203; SL 1966, ch 159, § 2; SL 1972, ch 8, § 4.

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