Let the sunshine in

South Dakota needs a better way to inform the public about the need to enter executive sessions, but what that fix would be could be tricky.

Per state law, governments are authorized to go into executive session to discuss certain items — such as discussing the performance of employees, discussing disciplinary action of a student, preparing for contract negotiations, or discussing marketing strategies. Other agencies have their own allowed purposes for going into executive session. Such as the state Gaming Commission. It can go into closed sessions to discuss items such as considering applications for licensing when the discussion of background investigations or personal information is required; meeting with gaming officials of other jurisdictions, the attorney general, the state’s attorney of Lawrence County, or law enforcement officials relating to possible criminal violations; and deliberations after hearing evidence on an informal consultation or a contested case necessary to reach a decision among others.

Executive sessions are attended by members of the governmental board and other necessary persons. They are not recorded by the agency, and what occurs during those meetings are not required to be discussed outside the session. However, if there is to be any action taken about the agenda item that led the agency to enter a closed meeting, it must be taken in open session.

For example, a board cannot fire someone, approve a contract, etc., while behind closed doors.

Shortly after the state Gaming Commission entered a recent executive session we reached out to Larry Eliason, the executive secretary of the commission, to clarify a the reason for the board entering a closed session.

“I can not tell you anything that went on during executive session,” Eliason was quick to say. 

That’s not accurate, as there is no state law that says items that were discussed in executive session cannot be discussed in open session. Rather, officials are not obligated to discuss those items publically. It is at their discretion.

When we addressed the matter further as the agenda and discussion before the board entered closed session, one could be led to believe the exact reason might not have been within the spirit of the law to enter closed session.

“I can tell you; everything we discussed was fully within the spirit of the law,” he replied.

Essentially his message was “trust us.”

And there it is. Trust. Now we do trust that, for the vast majority, our government officials, and general public for that matter, is trustworthy. And we have no reason to doubt Eliason’s word. But our profession’s mantra is “trust but verify.”

It is frustrating trying to hold agencies accountable when the answer is “I can’t tell you, and I can’t tell you why I can’t tell you.”

Do our open meeting laws need to get stronger? 

Yes.

Do our local governments do a good job in keeping with the spirit of the law? 

Yes.

Has there been, and will there continue to be, people who flat out lie to save face?

Yes.

Sunshine Week, March 11-17 this year, is a week to raise awareness and celebrate access to public information. The more transparent our governments can be allows the public to be more informed. When more people are informed, everybody wins.

Let the sunshine in.

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