January 5, 2008

New Open Records Law -- Past Due

Students of history have little problem finding examples where citizens became complacent and ended up losing many of their freedoms.

Bit by bit, seemingly innocent and harmless encroachments occur – almost invisibly – until one wakes up and finds them gone and is either unwilling or unable to reacquire them.

And so it is with South Dakota’s open records laws. In these United States, most of them anyway, public records are presumed open and available for public scrutiny unless action is taken to specifically close them. In South Dakota, government agencies generally operate on the premise that they can close any records that they are not required by law to keep. And that premise is driven by a wrongheaded state law.

As journalists and many genealogists can tell you, it can be a difficult – if not impossible – task to obtain even the simplest of public documents. The South Dakota open records law is confusing to citizens and government employees alike.

According to an article by Bill Harlan in the Rapid City Journal (“Open-records bills coming to South Dakota”) there are several legislative bills in the works to change things, but they may be no less confusing. A Government Openness Task Force was set up to examine the issue but has not yet endorsed any specific plan.

We’ll be watching this issue closely and encouraging folks to do the same. More than that, as the proposals come forward, we need to aggressively support a strong bill, if we find one in the mix.

Change would be good.

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