Committee Sunshine Bill Leaps Hurdle

Feb 25, 2013

South Dakota passed an open government law intended to make sure public meetings remain in the public eye.

In Pierre this year an effort is underway to close what are seen as some loopholes the law.   Those in favor say too often open meeting laws are being circumvented in sub-committees.  But, those opposed say the bill hampers government efficiency and places undue burden on citizens. 

SDPB’s Charles Michael Ray has this Dakota Digest.

The Senate State Affairs Committee gave thumbs up to a bill that aims to strengthen the state's open government law.  The vote came with some humor from Republican State Senator Timothy Rave.  

“I move due pass 1108 as amended,” says Rave.

“Motion by Rave Second by Lederman-- Comments on the motion,” says Senator Larry Rhoden Committee Chair.

“Might be the most confusing bill we had all session Mr. Chair,” says Rave.

The bill became confusing with volley of amendments back and forth.  In its current form the legislation makes official government sub-committees subject to open meetings laws.   Those like David Bordewyk  with the South Dakota Newspaper Association argue that too often sub-committees make their decisions outside public view. 
"If you believe the devil is in the details, it’s the work, the debate, the discussion that goes into what the city finance committee does in terms of make and arriving that the decisions for recommendations that go to the full council.  If you believe the public should have access and knowledge of what those debates and discussions are about  then I think this is a good bill,” says Borderwyk.

The sun sets on the State Capitol while lawmakers consider the final group of sunshine bills put forward by the South Dakota Open Governemnt Task Force.

But opponents argue the bill has unintended consequences.   Yvonne Taylor with the South Dakota Municipal League says sunshine laws should not end up limiting the normal process of local government.   
“We need to have some ability to have some sort of deliberative process at the local level you shouldn’t have to fall under the open meetings law just because you’re having some sort of a discussion,” says Taylor. 

Opponents worried that the bill would require student councils and citizens task forces to post notice every time they met and open all proceedings to the public.  The committee went on to pass an amended version of the bill that deals only with government bodies--citizens advisory committees are not subject to the amended version of the bill.  Tony Venhuizen with the Governor’s office was a member of the Open Government Task Force that took a close look at the state’s sunshine laws.  Venhuizen spoke in favor of HB 1108 in committee.   He says the bill that passed out of committee is a step toward more openness.

“It’s maybe not as broad based as the Open Government Task Force proposed but it still gets at a lot of these committees and I’m sure that people who feel strongly about this issue will be pleased that this is a step in the right direction,” says Venhuizen. 

Venhuizen says South Dakota has made major advances towards more open government overall.  He points to major changes trade in recent years that took South Dakota Government from a policy that presumed all records closed – to one that presumed all records open.  But there are still those that see South Dakota as far too closed.  They say the state doesn’t have enough regulations that provide citizen oversight for several aspects of government.

“Ronald Regan was famous for saying trust but verify,” says Gordon Witkin of the Center for Public Integrity

Gordon Witkin is with the Center for Public Integrity.  Last year the group ranked South Dakota as 49th in the country when it comes to the risk for corruption.   The state got an F in categories like lobbying disclosures, legislative accountability, and ethics enforcement. 

“And for open government advocates the feeling is, well people say there is no corruption here.  But, how would you really know if you don’t have the accountability, transparency, and openness and the systems in place that would allow you to track such things,” says Witkin. 

But others like Tony Venhuizen from the Governor’s office point out that New Jersey scored better than South Dakota in the report only because that state has real problems with corruption – and so they have passed real measures against it.  But he says South Dakota is a small state – where corruption has not proven to be a problem.

“It’s kind of like saying fewer people in Hawaii own a winter coat.  And that’s not because they can’t afford one it’s because it’s hot there.    South Dakota is fortunate that the people who are in public office are in it for the right reasons they’re in it for public service and there is not a lot of money.  Things are just different here than in places where they have full time legislatures and a lot more money and influence it’s an environment like you might find in congress,” says Venhuizen.   

This session marks the end of the formal process towards a more open South Dakota Government.  The South Dakota Open Government Task Force concluded its business with the legislation it proposed this year.  House Bill 1108 is among a number of bills lawmakers are considering.  If it passes the final hurdle and makes it through the State Senate it could end up on Governor Dennis Daugaard’s  desk.