MERCER: Public records laws maintain trust
PIERRE — Open meeting laws and public records laws help our local and state government officials maintain integrity and trust. Oftentimes citizens depend on news reporters to serve as a conduit.
Unfortunately I haven’t consistently fulfilled that responsibility. Rarely have I or any other reporter attended a meeting of the South Dakota High School Activities Association. The association’s meetings and records aren’t definitely covered by South Dakota’s laws. They should be.
Regardless of the law, I need to be there on a regular basis.
More than 25 years ago, Gov. George S. Mickelson brought a new era of state government financial assistance to economic development. A few reporters went to the meetings of those new boards.
The meetings were conducted almost entirely in executive session behind closed doors. We waited outside and eventually witnessed a few actions in open session that confirmed decisions reached while the doors were shut.
In those days, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development also issued news releases about the decisions, such as low-interest loans made by the Board of Economic Development to assist job-creation.
We stopped going. Later the news releases stopped too. The GOED boards operated in seclusion, other than their annual reports and audits.
Then Northern Beef Packers came along. We weren’t paying attention. The Rounds administration sent six- and seven-figure amounts of grant money to aid the Aberdeen project. The GOED boards committed many millions of dollars to loans.
Fortunately or unfortunately — we can’t second-guess the past and the present — Northern Beef wasn’t able to fulfill the commitments set by those state boards and didn’t receive the loan money.
South Dakotans consequently didn’t have those many more millions of dollars at risk when Northern Beef shut down and declared bankruptcy last year. Northern Beef came on the heels of the Ridgefield Farms fiasco that occurred earlier in the Rounds administration.
We, the news reporters of South Dakota, weren’t on top of the Northern Beef financial story as it took shape starting in 2010. We didn’t learn from Ridgefield.
In recent months, after the November revelations about former state official Richard Benda and the immigrant-investor program known by its federal designation of EB5, I realized the colossal mistake. I returned to covering the GOED boards.
It still requires sitting elsewhere for most of the meeting while the executive session is held. But at least we are getting nuggets of key information again.
The Daugaard administration has been more transparent than the previous administration. GOED annual reports are now posted on the GOED web site. The meeting agendas and minutes are there too.
This session the Legislature will look at reforms. The activities association is under scrutiny from lawmakers. Some of them will bring legislation to make clear the association is subject to open meeting and public record laws, including meeting materials and contracts.
Also look for lawmakers to seek oversight of Future Fund grants, which have been exclusively under the governor’s control since Mickelson began them.
The South Dakota Newspaper Association will ask legislators to designate police logs as public records, too.
These are important steps for integrity and trust. It’s likewise important for reporters to keep our eyes open every day.