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Public meetings should have periods for public comments, House decides

South Dakota's Capitol as pictured in this file photo. (Daily Republic file photo)

PIERRE — The state House of Representatives wants to require public comment periods at all public meetings of state and local boards and commissions in South Dakota.

House members voted 60-8 Tuesday. HB 1172 now goes to the Senate for consideration.

The legislation came from Rep. Elizabeth May, R-Kyle.

May said she went with a friend who wanted to speak at a school board meeting about a topic that wasn't on the agenda.

The board went into executive session, May said, and about one hour later she spotted board members leaving the building through a side door.

Her legislation would add this sentence to state law:

"The chair of the public body shall reserve at every official meeting by the public body a period for public comment, limited at the chair's discretion, but not so limited as to provide for no public comment."

May said the point is to send a message that elected officials need to be available to answer questions from citizens.

May told Rep. Jean Hunhoff she would leave it as an open forum.

Hunhoff, R-Yankton, said it wouldn't be efficient for legislative committees.

"I understand that's an issue but it does open a caveat," Hunhoff said.

She noted the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission sometimes has 10 pages of meeting minutes from comments during its public period.

Rep. Tim Reed, R-Brookings, said the bill has "good intentions" but needs more work before it's passed.

Rep. Lana Greenfield, R-Doland, suggested the school board in May's example needed to update its process.

Rep. Kristin Conzet, R-Rapid City, asked May if there was a way to limit public comments on time and germaneness. May said Conzet's idea seemed good.

But May noted she already had tried to give leeway to board and commission chairs.

"They can allow time or not allow any time," May said. "This already gives the chairs discretion whether to do it or not do it."

Conzet said May's approach would put chairs under "undue pressure."

Rep. Greg Jamison, R-Sioux Falls, supported May. He said the Sioux Falls City Council holds public input sessions. He conceded "characters" sometimes turn them into "an open mic" but said people generally appreciated the chances to bring up their issues.

"If you do not allow them to speak, you will pay," Jamison warned. He said the time given for people to speak was well invested.

Rep. Jason Kettwig, R-Milbank, backed May, too. The municipal administrator said he's run city council meetings for 13 years and every agenda he's put on the wall had a public comment period as the second item on the list.

Kettwig said requiring a public comment period was "a great idea."

"I think it's a pretty simple fix," May said as she closed debate. "I think we need to remember how important it is."