From the editor: Fight for open records continues this week in SD Legislature

Farm Forum

Open government advocates were dealt several blows by the South Dakota Legislature last week, but there is still room for progress.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a consistent supporter of open government, and Attorney General Marty Jackley convened an open government task force last year to suggest legislation for state lawmakers to tackle this session. The task force, spearheaded by the South Dakota Newspaper Association, suggested several advances in open government to be considered, as well as clarification to some confusing existing laws.

Here is the scorecard of all eight House bills, courtesy of SDNA:

House Bill 1108: To expand the application of certain open meetings provisions to certain committees of public boards. After some changes, it is now in the full House, waiting for amendments. House Bill 1109: To provide that criminal booking photos and police logs are open records. This bill was killed in committee, but the police log portion could come back this week as a standalone item. House Bill 1110: To provide for openness in certain electronic records databases and to open certain information regarding electronic record systems. Passed the House, now on its way to the Senate State Affairs Committee. House Bill 1111: To repeal the five-year period after which pardon records are sealed. Killed in committee. House Bill 1112: To clarify the application of certain open meetings provisions to certain three-member public boards. Passed the House, now on to Senate State Affairs Committee. House Bill 1113: To include text messages under rules covering teleconferences, making them available for public inspection. Approved in committee, going to full House. House Bill 1114: To repeal the confidentiality status of certain derogatory materials and to create an exception to certain open records provisions for certain defamatory information. Killed in committee. House Bill 1115: To clarify the deliberative process exception to certain open records provisions. Passed by committee, now on to full House.

While I have stronger feelings about some of these initiatives than others, they are all important elements of open government.

The death of the “derogatory materials” bill is disappointing. At Newspaper Day in Pierre Thursday, Daugaard himself said that the word should be changed to “defamatory,” which is a legal description, rather than the broad and limiting “derogatory,” which can be used to justify keeping all kinds of government dealings secret.

HB 1113 should be straightforward. Much like emails used on public accounts and computers, “work” texts should, in many cases, be subject to public scrutiny.

Making police logs open record is a critical need. There is a fear among lawmakers that releasing mug shots and arrest information convicts people publicly before they are given a fair trial. However, court records are already open, so the names come out before a verdict as it is.

Throwing the public-police-logs portion out with the mug-shot portion would be a wasted opportunity to get some sunshine on that material, which is available in so many other states.

At Newspaper Day, when asked by a journalist what progress South Dakota has made on open records, Rep. David Lust, R-Rapid City, said, “The heavy lifting is done. We are working around the edges, talking about mug shots.” He seemed to dismiss the concerns of Daugaard, Jackley and the task force as trivial.

Of course, he is wrong on that count. And South Dakota still has a long way to go in making sure the public has the access to information it deserves.

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