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OUR VIEW: Leaders need to educate others about transparency

We’d been feeling pretty good lately about the degree to which South Dakota’s government has opened up.

Law changes in recent years, including a presumption of openness for state government records, and better leadership have generally made public information in our state easier to get.

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Sadly, a recent fight between a South Dakota official and a Florida man have once again proved that when openness is given a true test — by a private citizen against a bureaucrat — South Dakota continues to fail.

The story first came to us this fall, when Ken Kramer, of Clearwater, Fla., called to ask about a fight we’d won against the Huron School Board. Through months of effort, we pried open an ex-superintendent’s contract showing the board continued to pay the superintendent even after he’d agreed to leave the district.

Kramer wondered how we’d done it, because he was fighting with South Dakota Assistant Attorney General Daniel Todd over a listing of South Dakota physicians who’d been excluded from Medicaid. Kramer, who runs an anti-psychiatry website, was seeking such lists from every state. He told us South Dakota was the only one to claim the record was not public.

We told Kramer about the state Office of Hearing Examiners and its appeal process for records that have been declared closed. He filed an appeal.

Before a decision could be issued that was bound to prove Todd wrong, but after he’d successfully stalled for about five months since Kramer’s initial request, Todd’s interpretation of state law suddenly changed and he supplied the record to Kramer on Dec. 19.

The lesson was clear and all too familiar to those of us who’ve had to fight for open records in this state: No matter how open the law appears to be, the real test is actually getting records from bureaucrats, and many of them continue to believe records are closed unless an excruciatingly long fight proves otherwise.

It’s an attitude that needs to change. We believe it has changed at the top of state government, but the people at the top need to educate the people below them.

Better openness laws are great, but as we’ve seen, they may not be effective when dealing with stubborn bureaucrats. Only when those bureaucrats understand that their leaders demand openness will they actually deliver it.