TUPPER: Concern for openness finally reaches the topSomebody at the top finally gets it. That somebody is Mitchell’s very own Dusty Johnson, the chief of staff for Gov. Dennis Daugaard. Speaking Thursday about a directive the Daugaard administration often gives to bureaucrats, he said this: “It’s your job to provide the information, not to find ways to hide it.”
By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic
Somebody at the top finally gets it.
That somebody is Mitchell’s very own Dusty Johnson, the chief of staff for Gov. Dennis Daugaard. Speaking Thursday about a directive the Daugaard administration often gives to bureaucrats, he said this:
“It’s your job to provide the information, not to find ways to hide it.”
Johnson was addressing editors and publishers who’ve long been starving for a top-level government official who might understand their intense craving for openness. As such, his words were like manna from heaven. It’s possible that Johnson, already considered a top Republican prospect for every elected statewide office, won numerous future endorsements from the half-hour he spent at the Pierre Ramkota with journalists assembled for the South Dakota Newspaper Association’s Newspaper Day.
For years, we in the South Dakota newspaper industry have been griping about open government. We often contended, and with good reason, that South Dakota was among the most closed states in the nation in regard to government documents and meetings.
The most famous example I can think of to prove the point is the time about 10 years ago when newspapers all over the state conducted an “audit” of government openness by sending people to government offices to ask for public records, including budgets and police logs. During that project, some participants were detained and questioned by law enforcement, simply because they asked for a public record. It was shocking proof of the allegations that newspapers had been making about the lack of openness in our state.
Flowing from that effort, many leaders in the newspaper industry were instrumental in joining with then-Attorney General Larry Long to form an openness task force. Out of that effort came many formal and informal victories that considerably opened the previously closed door of our state and local governments.
Still, throughout the effort, some minds and hearts have been slow to change. This state’s top leaders, almost to a person, refused to loosen their vice-like grip on information including the guest lists at events like the Governor’s Hunt, the list of people who stay at the state-owned Valhalla cabin in the Black Hills, and various records kept by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
That closed attitude at the top trickled down to the lowest levels of government, where local officials hesitated — and sometimes still refuse — to produce such obviously public documents as school-district budgets, criminal complaints and public-employee salaries.
Yet now, for the first time in my journalistic career, I actually believe a corner has been turned. Someone at the highest level of government is publicly saying the same things we journalists do about openness.
Johnson told two stories that helped explain his stance on open government. One was a story about his time as a reporter for the student newspaper at the University of South Dakota, where he got into a heated argument with the head football coach over the reporting of some controversial information. That experience showed him what a tough job journalists can have as they fight for openness.
The other story was about the feeling we all get when we’re driving and spot a police car. Even if we’re driving the speed limit and doing nothing else wrong, we get nervous. Johnson said for many public officials, getting a call from a reporter is a lot like seeing a cop car approaching in the rear-view mirror. Fear and anxiety take over as they worry about what they’ll say and how it will be interpreted, and those feelings fester into an adversarial relationship that can result in the closing of government to journalists and, by extension, the public.
With all of that in mind, Johnson and his boss, Daugaard, have been enacting the kind of open-government measures that typically only receive lip service. Johnson rattled off a list: the opening of invite and guest lists for state events, the opening of Valhalla and the Governor’s Mansion for tours, the opening of a Department of Corrections after-incident report following the killing of a guard by an inmate, the passage of a law that sets a financial penalty for improperly closing public records, the opening of many records in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, the uploading of more government records to the Internet, and improvements to the searchability of Internet records.
And, Johnson said, “I think you’ll see the governor sign lots more open-government and open-records bills in the future.”
More important than all those official actions, though, is the message they send to government officials throughout the state. As Johnson said Thursday, bureaucrats sometimes refuse to divulge records, even if the law requires openness. It’s just the nature of some bureaucrats. That’s why it’s so important for the state’s leaders to transform the culture of government into one of openness. Bureaucrats, like everybody else, take their cues from the top.
Johnson spoke about some extraordinary steps the Daugaard administration has taken to provide access to information. One story was about a public information officer who was caught rudely refusing to assist a reporter. Johnson scolded the PIO, called the reporter to apologize, and offered alternative contacts for the reporter to get the desired information.
It’s a remarkable transformation from the government of just a few years ago. Johnson acknowledged there’s still work to do, but he clearly seems willing to do it.
“We’re rarely that good,” he said, speaking of his quick response to the rude PIO. “But we’re trying to get better.”