OUR VIEW: Threat of costly legal fight means open records not truly open
The Daily Republic has won a prestigious national award for its recent efforts in the name of government openness.
We've documented it quite well, but here's a quick recap: A reader from Huron called and asked us to look into a secret agreement between the Huron school board and a former superintendent of that district.
It took a couple of years, a lot of correspondence between lawyers and plenty of old-fashioned patience and persistence, but we found what we were looking for. The Huron board gave $175,000 in severance pay to the superintendent and then hoped to keep the information from that town's taxpayers.
A great victory for openness, right?
Now here is a statistic that hasn't been reported, and one that really shows that openness still isn't where it needs to be in this state: $6,000.
That figure represents the lawyer fees paid to represent us as we tracked down this secret information, which our lawyer ultimately helped prove should have been given to us in the first place.
Would an everyday citizen pay that amount to be told information that by law should be readily available? Most likely not.
Would all media outlets pay it? Most likely not.
So then, was this information truly open to the public?
What our effort showed is that elected boards, councils and commissions can always threaten an expensive legal battle in an effort to keep information secret. After all, it's easy to spend money on a lawyer when the cash isn't coming out of their own pockets, and officials know most people will balk at a legal fight.
The taxpayers of Huron should be doubly upset. First, they should be greatly disappointed that the school officials wouldn't simply hand over this information when asked. And second, they should be incensed that the board spent taxpayer money on a lawyer in an effort to keep it secret.
For the record, the South Dakota Newspaper Association helped us with our legal fees, splitting the $6,000 down the middle. Still, it shouldn't come to this.
The state Legislature has done great things in recent years to shed more light on how government does the people's business in South Dakota. We've been doing our part, too, and next week we will proudly send a delegate from this newspaper to accept the Public Notice Journalism Award in Washington, D.C.
The Daily Republic and the SDNA shouldn't have had to pay $6,000 to obtain information that was determined to be open.
If lawmakers truly want openness, they should introduce legislation that forces a government body to pay all or some legal fees if that body fails in a legal fight to keep information from the public.
Until that happens, South Dakota really doesn't have true open government.