Bend the long arc toward more open government

I was pleased to see Sen. Arthur “Art” Rusch, R-Vermillion, receive our association’s award for protecting the public’s right to know during a luncheon on Friday in Sioux Falls. The SDNA Eagle Award dates back to 2002 and over the years has been given to a variety of public officials and others. Recipients have included state Supreme Court justices, a governor, student journalists, citizens and other legislators who have fought for government transparency.

Sen. Rusch was honored for his work to pass a bill this year that makes it illegal for government entities to enter into certain confidential settlements. The issue was rooted in a controversy several years ago involving the city of Sioux Falls and a secret settlement with construction contractors over warped siding on the Denny Sanford Premier Center.

A legal challenge by the Argus Leader ultimately led the state Supreme Court to rule the Premier Center settlement should be made public and it was.

A circuit court judge for 18 years before becoming a lawmaker, Art Rusch was familiar with confidential settlements.

“That’s when I decided there was a need to address the confidentiality clauses, particularly when it involved government entities and the government money being spent, that the public ought to know,” he said in a Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan story by Randy Dockendorf.

It took him two years, but Sen. Rusch got it done. His bill became state law on Monday.

Actually, two years can be but a blink of an eye when it comes to improving open government laws in South Dakota. That became evident during a panel discussion about open records laws that followed the Eagle Award presentation on Friday.

Dave Knudson, a Sioux Falls attorney, was one of the panelists. As Senate majority leader in 2009, he authored a bill that reformed our state’s open records laws. The reform of laws that dictate which government records can and cannot be considered open to the public was a milestone. And a long time coming.

In 1991, Democratic legislators, led by Sen. Paul Symens of Amherst and Rep. Linda Lea Viken of Rapid City, sponsored an open records bill that was, in many respects, remarkably similar to the Knudson bill that passed 18 years later.

Another panelist – Jon Arneson, a Sioux Falls attorney who has worked on First Amendment and open government issues for more than 40 years – remarked that the public records reform of 2009 should have happened many years earlier, but that stars weren’t aligned in Pierre to make it happen.

The other two panelists on Friday – Argus Leader reporter Jonathan Ellis and Tony Venhuizen, who worked for eight years in the administration of Gov. Dennis Daugaard – have been keenly involved in open government issues in our state for the past decade or so. Both spoke about the progress that has been made and the challenges ahead.

Challenges ahead, indeed.

South Dakota’s weekly and daily newspapers have long advocated for better open government laws in South Dakota. Whether it is public access to government records or government meetings, journalists in this state know the challenges because they see the barriers to openness every day in their jobs gathering and reporting the news.

Incremental was a word used more than once by the panelists last Friday. The adjective best describes the long arc of change and progress in our state’s open government laws through the years.

Changes are needed in our laws. For example, we need to permit public access to official government correspondence and email. And we need to change the open meetings laws to reduce abuse of closed-door meetings by public officials.

Incremental change requires patience, but as long as there are public officials like Sen. Art Rusch willing to work toward more open government, we will be moving in the right direction.

David Bordewyk is executive director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, which represents the state’s 125 weekly and daily newspapers.

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