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KOOIKER: Open meetings for all agencies

I noticed the following headline in the Feb. 4 edition of the Pierre Capital Journal, while I was in Pierre for a gathering of the South Dakota Municipal League: "SDHSAA Board Closes Meeting to Talk about Open Meetings."

0 Talk about it

The headline was followed by this opening paragraph: "Nearly all of the Republican leaders in the Legislature want to require the South Dakota High School Activities Association to comply with state laws on open meetings and public records. The association's board of directors responded Tuesday by meeting for 90 minutes behind closed doors to discuss the situation."

I reflected on this double irony until I needed ibuprofen. So what's more ironic -- the SDHSAA holding a closed meeting to discuss opening the meetings, or the Legislature being appalled with SDHSAA secrecy when a majority of both houses of the Legislature gathers behind closed doors continually during session to discuss the business of our entire state?

The Legislature is absolutely correct that it is wrong for the SDHSAA, or any other state, county, school or local board to be allowed to meet behind closed doors. However, the Legislature needs to live by the same standard.

Hundreds of bills are considered each year by our Legislature. There is one bill this year that would positively impact every future bill in the legislature. House Bill 1172 is a simple 30-word bill: Any gathering of a simple majority of either the South Dakota House of Representatives or the South Dakota Senate, meeting to discuss introduced legislation, shall be open to the public.

Implementing simple quorum rules for the Legislature makes perfect sense. I've heard some legislators will oppose it because Rep. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, is one of the 19 sponsors, and he has frustrated Republican leadership on other issues. Others will oppose it because they see it as "grandstanding by Democrats." I hope legislators will look past the perceived motives, and see this bill for what it is: a simple, logical and long overdue rule to require the legislature to abide by the same rules all local governments in South Dakota are required to follow.  

If the Legislature is serious about consistent open government, it will support this bill wholeheartedly.

The majority of the state House and Senate have been meeting behind closed doors for a very long time, and the discussion of this bill will likely also happen behind closed doors. Perhaps the bill needs some exceptions built in to allow the discussion of personnel matters, contractual matters and pending litigation, like what local governments have. However, the bill deserves serious public debate rather than being unceremoniously referred to the 41st day.  

It's wrong for the Legislature to have closed meetings, especially when the rest of South Dakota's state and local boards have to abide by open meeting laws. If the Legislature refuses to correct this double standard, perhaps the people of South Dakota will exercise their right by putting this to a public vote. I predict it would pass by a wide margin.

-Sam Kooiker, Rapid City, is the mayor of Rapid City. He has his undergraduate degree in criminal justice/psychology and his master's in public administration from the University of South Dakota.