March 20, 2009

A change of direction

Since we've been something of a rabble rouser when it comes to open government in South Dakota, we should give credit where credit is due. This is not in any priority order -- in fact, it basically starts with the late comers first.

God bless Governor Mike Rounds for seeing the light and accepting a philosophical change of direction for the state. His signing of a new open records law yesterday (3/19/09) was something of a turnaround for the governor, who has claimed previous versions were not strong enough in protecting individual rights. The new law, which takes effect July 1, importantly contains a presumption that government documents should be open to the public, unless there are good reasons for keeping them under wraps.

The new law is far from perfect, but it's lightyears ahead of what exists right now -- basically allowing bureaucrats at any government level to make decisions about what should and should not be open to the public. In other words, it generally presumed that only documents required to be kept by government would be made available -- if officials wanted to make them available.

I don't know what motivated Republican State Senator Dave Knudson to get behind and push for a new open records law. Perhaps he saw it as a good resume-builder for would-be gubernatorial candidates. Maybe he simply believed South Dakota was due for more open government. Whatever the incentive, he did his homework and navigated his SB-147 handily through the legislature. Thanks, Dave.

Democratic Senator Nancy Turbak Berry should certainly be acknowledged for giving high visibility to open government last year, when she introduced a similar open records law -- but without a lot of the politically-worded baggage necessary to get it through the legislature. Her early spadework, along with that of several others legislators, was critically important.

And, of course, a multitude of candidates last election thought it was important enough to publicly speak out and advocate a stronger open records law. Near the head of that list of folks was Nyla Griffith of Deadwood, a Democrat whose campaign last year for a seat in the State Senate fell short.

Certainly, South Dakota newspapers played a role in pushing through the new law, and they deserve recognition. However, this was NOT just a media deal. It was a citizen movement, and it was growing significantly. I suspect that had as much to do with final approval of the new law as anything. Politicians seem to sense such groundswells --- at least the good ones do.

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