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Gubernatorial candidates weigh in on open government issues

Candidates for governor gave wildly different answers when asked to grade the openness of government in South Dakota.

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Friday, Sept. 30, gubernatorial debate featured, from left to right, Libertarian candidate Tracey Quint, Democratic candidate Jamie Smith and Republican candidate Kristi Noem.
KOTA/Dakota News Now
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BROOKINGS — Candidates for governor gave wildly different answers when asked to grade the openness of government in South Dakota.

Gov. Kristi Noem, the incumbent Republican candidate, said the grade should be an A or B+, noting the journalist's shield law that was passed in the first year of her tenure as governor and her family’s presence on social media.

“Since I’ve been here, in my administration, we’ve been more transparent than any governor ever has,” Noem said.

Her Democratic challenger, Rep. Jamie Smith, gave the government openness a D or C. “I’d say we can do a whole lot better,” Smith said. “There is lots of room for improvement, I think.”

Libertarian candidate Tracey Quint gave the state what she called a “low C or D.” According to Quint, “I think there’s a lot of issues that people are noticing with the transparency of the current government. They just want to know what’s going on behind closed doors and what’s happening with their tax dollars.”

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This fall the candidates were questioned individually about a range of open government issues by members of the First Amendment Committee of the South Dakota Newspaper Association. The committee of editors and reporters has held similar sessions with gubernatorial and attorney general candidates in past elections.

Topics included:

Governor’s accessibility to the press

Smith said he didn’t want to be held to a strict policy, but that he thought a governor’s accessibility to the press was important, including having news conferences at scheduled times.

“We’ve gotten away from that in the last few years, because, some people, I don’t think want to tell the truth and have that opportunity to speak the truth,” Smith said.

Noem characterized her administration as “extremely accessible,” noting that during the pandemic she held daily news conferences, sometimes more than one a day.

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Kristi Noem. Courtesy of South Dakota Newspaper Association.

“We’re always giving people the opportunity to have access to us and information and ask the hard questions,” Noem said. “I don’t know that we’ve ever shied away from answering a hard question.”

The only way for government to be open and honest is to have an open and honest relationship with the press, Quint said. “I would definitely be available and want my department heads to be available to talk to the press about issues that the people of the state bring up.”

Role of the press in a democracy

All three candidates heaped praise on journalists when asked to characterize the role of the press in society. Noem, who has had some notable run-ins with journalists, noted that it should be “a fair and free press.”

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Quint called the press the liaison between the people and the government.

Smith lamented the demonization of the press: “All press has been lambasted as being part of the liberal agenda in America. That’s not true. Just because you report the truth does not make you liberal.”

Open meetings law and abuses of executive session

Reporters often express frustration at the secrecy of local public boards and commissions that go into closed session for consultation with a lawyer about pending litigation or to deal with personnel matters.

Smith said he participated in executive sessions as part of the impeachment of Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg. “I know that the things that are talked about in executive session, that I’ve been involved in, have been within the letter of the law. There’s a reason we closed that down. When we come back we always report on what went on, that we could talk about, in that meeting.”

Quint said she was open to looking at the issue, calling for more oversight “if they are overusing that closed door policy.”

Noem said she was concerned about protecting attorney/client privilege as well as the personal information that may be disclosed in personnel discussions. She did, however, acknowledge the perception of a problem with executive sessions: “We all hear those stories across the state where executive session gets used every meeting and you don’t know, necessarily, if they’re using it appropriately.”

Requiring boards to review open meetings laws

To varying degrees, all three candidates supported an idea that would require local boards and commissions to annually review open meeting laws.

“If we could figure out a way that they had to do training,” Noem said, “I would facilitate that, so that they knew what executive session was, how it should be used appropriately.”

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Smith said he was hesitant to mandate training, but thought it was a good idea: “I would hope that the people that are not using the law correctly are doing it because they’re ignorant.”

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Jamie Smith. Couresty of South Dakota Newspaper Association.

In addition to an annual review, Quint said training on open meetings law should be part of the training for newly elected board and commission members.

Reviewing exemptions to open records law

A 2009 law gave state government records and documents a presumption of openness, though there are many exemptions to the law. Among the exemptions are government correspondence, including emails, and many law enforcement records.

Smith said he doesn’t believe government emails should be open records, but as for the other exemptions, he said he would have to study the issue.

Quint said she wants to make public government correspondence: “I definitely think that government correspondence should have a little more transparency. The government works for the people. The people should know what’s going on in their government.”

Noem said she would rely on law enforcement for advice about opening more records: “Our due process, that we’re guaranteed in this country, is incredibly important. I’d want to make sure I didn’t undermine that.”

Access to governor’s business calendar

“I’d like the people to know what their governor is doing,” Smith said.

Noem was far more circumspect about releasing a daily calendar, noting that elected officials, including her, often receive death threats. “I get death threats on a regular basis, so if you want to release my calendar, just know that for every good person who wants that information, there’s about 10 bad people that want it, too.”

As an elected official, the governor has a duty to keep the public informed, according to Quint. “They should know where the governor is,” Quint said. “If they’re spending all their time out of state, not doing state business, they should know about that.”

Access to government information online

Noem said she is open to suggestion about improvements to online access to government information and praised the openness of her administration: “We’ve been much more transparent than any previous governor has been. We have literally opened up conversations and shown people more of what state government does.”

Smith was less enthusiastic about his experience with trying to find state government information online, saying the state website needs “a huge overhaul” in order to be more intuitive. “I think a redesign of that and putting a platform together that makes that easier would make a lot of sense because we know we can in today’s world.”

Quint said the public needs to be educated about the types of information it has a right to see.

Publishing public notices in newspapers

Required by statute to publish public notices, in almost every legislative session, newspapers fight off attempts to move the meeting minutes and bid notices online only. In the last session, legislators endorsed a law requiring newspapers to publish public notices but also post them to SDpublicnotices.com.

All three candidates supported keeping the requirement that public notices be published in newspapers.

Advertising tax exemption

In South Dakota, advertising is exempt from the state sales tax.

Noem said she has no plans to address that particular exemption: “I think it’s fair. It’s been important to our state.”

As a Libertarian, Quint said she is not in favor of adding new taxes.

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Tracey Quint. Courtesy of South Dakota Newspaper Association.

Smith said he understands that the exemption would be a tax on businesses that advertise. He would, however, like a review of all tax exemptions: “I think understanding why we’re doing what we’re doing is important for all those exemptions.”

Election integrity in South Dakota

All three candidates voiced their confidence in the state’s election process and officials.

Noem said her office is talking to the Secretary of State’s office about facilitating election audits. She said the state must “make sure that people continue to have faith in our election systems.”

As the Democratic leader in the House, Smith said that with just eight Democrats in that chamber, he should be the one most concerned with the legitimacy of the state’s elections. “The reason we have eight is a lot of different reasons, but it’s not voter fraud.”

Quint said the elections are fair, but the process leading up the election isn’t fair for third parties which are often excluded from debates and polls. “We still exist, even if we don’t have the money for billboards,” Quint said. “If we could be talked about more leading up to the election or be included in the polls that go out, that would lead to more fair elections.”

Election day is Nov. 8. Early voting is already underway in the state.

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