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Woster: Is the political openness promise being kept?

A regular column from Terry Woster

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I’m pretty sure that in all my years as a state Capitol news reporter, I never once heard a candidate for office pledge that, if elected, they would keep information from the public.

It may have happened at some point in the past, but I never heard it. The way politics and the idea of public service have changed in recent years, it wouldn’t completely surprise me if some elected official did make that promise. These days, the more outlandish the better, it sometimes seems. I don’t know where that’s all going, but it isn’t a good place.

When I covered candidates, campaigns and elections for all those years, what the people running for office did promise was to be open to their citizens. They promised to work for the people and to include the people in their deliberations and decisions. In recent years, a promise to be open has become a pledge to be completely transparent.

Transparent. That’s a $10 word for open, and I guess candidates think it means they’re going to be not merely open, but really most sincerely open, to mangle a bit of dialogue from “Wizard of Oz.’’ When I hear someone make a pledge of transparency these days, I sometimes think of the Amos Hart character in the musical “Chicago.’’ He’s the sad sack who sang “Mr. Cellophane.’’

The thing is, it’s really quite simple for officeholders to be transparent. All they have to do is tell people what’s going on, hold meetings in public, provide documents and reports that are background material to the decisions being made, explain decisions, votes and positions. That’s all it takes.

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But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. I mean, if you’re an elected official and you tell everyone what you’re actually thinking and doing, some people won’t like it. If they don’t like what you’re doing, maybe they won’t like you. And if they don’t like you, maybe they’ll vote for someone else the next time election day rolls around. Imagine the horror of not being a member of a school board or a county commission or one of the 105 members of the South Dakota Legislature. Horrors. How would government function without them?

I sometimes pick on the Legislature, even though for most of my reporting life, that institution was fairly accessible to people. The rules demanded open meetings and public votes and recorded roll calls. The process came to include televised proceedings and archived files of meetings. I give much respect to the men and women who put those rules and processes in place and to those who follow them.

There’s still a basic section of South Dakota’s Constitution, though, that says “The sessions of each house and of the committee of the whole shall be open, unless when the business is such as ought to be kept secret.’’ Can’t be much plainer than that. “We will be open unless we won’t be.’’

Most of the time, state government is open. Even so, the open records law has a long list of exceptions, times when records may be kept secret. And too often that list of exceptions is used to unnecessarily keep records from the public.

Openness is a pendulum. Sometimes it swings toward the dark of a moonless night. Sometimes it swings toward the light of a noonday sun. The arc of the pendulum is kept toward sunlight only by the good hearts of officeholders and record-keepers and the vigilance of citizens.

I used to trust the good hearts of officeholders and record keepers. When they denied me access to a meeting or copies of a public document, I didn’t take it personally. I figured they simply didn’t understand how open government worked. These days I often struggle to give them the benefit of the doubt. I guess I lack faith in the goodness of their hearts.

That leaves us – you and me. We’re the ones who must always be vigilant if our government is to work. After all, we’re the people in charge, if we decide to be. And we should decide to be, always. It matters too much. The saying, “Democracy dies in darkness’’ is absolutely true.

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A regular opinion piece by columnist Terry Woster