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SDPB Radio Coverage of the South Dakota Legislature. See all coverage and find links to audio and video streams live from the Capitol at www.sdpb.org/statehouse

Panel Okays Email, Texts As Open Meetings

Kealey Bultena

A panel of South Dakota lawmakers supports a move to include certain email and text message conversations as official meetings. That means the content would be recorded and open to the public. Thursday’s questions center on privacy.

South Dakota meetings operate under an open government concept. All material is considered public unless a group provides a reason it is off limits. That includes discussion among members of boards when they’re outside of regular meetings.

House Bill 1153 extends the open meeting mandate to text messages and emails that fit certain criteria. If electronic conversations are about official business matters and involve a quorum – the minimum number of people necessary to conduct business – the bill requires the dialogue be preserved and made available to the public for one year.

State Representative Paula Hawks asks for clarification of what happens if a person questions whether committee members are keeping electronic conversations from the public.

"Somebody going onto my phone or my computer, my personal computer, and sifting through my emails to find those particular messages that pertain to what you’re talking about and assure me that they’re not going to be sorting through my other personal emails," Hawks says. "That’s a significant issue for me, having somebody sort through my emails just because they heard maybe I was sending an email."

One supporter says that could happen if someone lodges a formal complaint about open records violations. Lobbyist Justin Smith says law enforcement would scrutinize emails – not open personal conversations for public viewing.

State Representative Herman Otten says that’s how it works already.

"If you’re emailing about city business or county business or school board business and there’s a lawsuit, they’re going to look for those emails, and that’s a good reason not to be conducting that business over email or text," Otten says.

Still opponents question whether making email and text message discussions among board members public puts other people’s personal information at risk if mentioned.

Emails or texts about scheduling meetings or focusing on topics that aren’t business-related are not considered public in House Bill 1153.

Two committee members voted against the legislation, but 11 support it. House Bill 1153 moves now to the full House of Representatives for consideration.