SD lawmakers reject plan to record closed meetingsOpponents say action would stifle debate, disclose sensitive details.
By: Chet Brokaw, The Associated Press
PIERRE — A split South Dakota legislative panel on Wednesday rejected requiring state and local boards and commissions to record closed meetings after opponents argued the move could stifle debate and lead to the disclosure of sensitive information.
The Senate Local Government Committee voted 4-3 to kill the measure, which would have required boards and commissions to keep minutes and recordings of all closed meetings. Those recordings would have been sealed unless someone complained that a meeting had been illegally closed. A judge then would have reviewed the minutes and recording to determine if they could be used in the legal complaint against the board or commission.
The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, said recordings would provide the best evidence of whether a board or commission met in a closed session to discuss issues that should have been handled in public. Such meetings can be closed to the public only for discussions about personnel issues, student performance, litigation or contracts, employee contract negotiations, pricing strategies by publicly owned businesses and certain economic development matters.
“The court would listen to that tape and that would solve the problem of what happened. The evidence would be very clear on what happened,” Novstrup said.
Those minutes and recordings would protect the public interest in open government and provide proof that a board had acted properly, he said.
Representatives of city councils, county commissions and school boards said such recordings could eventually lead to disclosure about sensitive information about government employees, students and legal disputes.
“I suggest to you, it is a road of danger for us,” said Richard Tieszen, a Pierre lawyer representing the Sioux Falls School Board.
Wade Pogany, executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, said the presence of a tape recorder could discourage a school board from having a full discussion about important issues, such as the abuse of a student.
“They’re going to pull back because of that tape recorder,” Pogany said.
Yvonne Taylor, director of the South Dakota Municipal League, said allegations of improperly closed meetings are now handled by the state’s Open Meetings Commission, which can hold hearings on alleged violations and issue reprimands for violations of the open meetings law. The commission has dealt with only about three dozen cases since it was created about six years ago, but county commissions, city councils and school boards have had about 50,000 to 60,000 meetings in that time, she said.
“We don’t have a problem out there,” Taylor said.
But Dave Bordewyk, general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, said the Open Meetings Commission has handled few cases involving the alleged improper closing of meetings because there’s no way to know what was discussed in those meetings. Boards and commissions could easily record closed meetings, he said.
“Digital recorders do not cost that much. I don’t think it’s a heavy burden to provide them,” Bordewyk said.