This week is National Sunshine Week – an annual observance to spotlight the importance of open, transparent government. It’s also a good time to say thank you and high five the journalists in South Dakota who are on the front lines of defending the public’s right to know.
A quick search for use of the term “executive session” in all South Dakota newspapers in our association’s computer database for the first 70 days of 2020 returns 500 hits.
Executive session is a term used by public boards, commissions and councils to refer to specific closed-door discussions during official meetings, as permitted by South Dakota’s open meetings laws.
Among the permissible reasons for when elected officials may go behind closed doors are to discuss the performance or competence of a government employee, to consult with their attorney about proposed or pending litigation, or to negotiate a contract with employees.
It is fair to assume the use of executive session is handled appropriately by public boards in most instances. However, there are times when journalists and the public have legitimate questions about its legal and proper use. There is no requirement in law that a recording or minutes of the executive session be kept or that any pronouncements be made following an executive session, so we don’t really know the true extent of its proper use or its abuse.
What is known is that at times elected officials will stretch and bend the permitted exceptions for executive session to fit their own comfort level. And to do so is possible so long as no one in the room blows the whistle on it later.
The bottom line: the use of executive sessions at times does get abused in South Dakota.
One city council in South Dakota has gone so far as to simply add to each meeting agenda: “executive session, if needed.”
The South Dakota Open Meetings Commission exists to hear complaints related to the open meetings laws, which are found in Chapter 1-25 in South Dakota’s codified laws. You can find information about the commission at the South Dakota attorney general’s website.
All of which brings me back to South Dakota’s newspapers and the many journalists who report about what government is doing. These are the reporters who cover the school board or city council meetings that at times can go late into the evening. Sometimes the reporters may camp out for hours in a hallway outside the meeting waiting for an executive session to end, if for no other reason than to learn what official actions are taken by a board.
These journalists are essential to keeping you and me informed about the business of our government at all levels. For the essential watchdog journalism they do, I say thank you. I encourage you to do the same.
These are not easy times for those in the news business, especially when it comes to balancing a budget and determining a best path forward. South Dakota’s newspapers are not immune to these challenges.
Nevertheless, I know that the people who publish, manage and work at South Dakota’s weekly and daily newspapers are committed to making sure they continue their watchdog role. They understand what is at stake. All the more reason why it’s so important to support your local newspaper as you would all local businesses that help sustain and enhance your community.
Democracy demands journalism and sunshine on the business of government is a good thing, always.