HB 1113 matches transparency, technology
Published: Thursday, January 31st, 2013
Technological advances in recent years have changed the way we do countless things. We communicate with each other in ways that only a few years ago seemed to be science fiction. That has touched our personal lives as well as the way we do business. And that includes the way in which government operates.
That reality led the Open Government Task Force convened last year by Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Attorney General Marty Jackley to recommend including new methods of communication in the transparency and accountability that are the bedrock of open government. The result is HB 1113, which expands the definition of teleconference "to include certain meetings conducted through electronic text colloquy and to require the retention of certain records of text colloquy meetings for public inspection."
"Colloquy" is a legal-technical term meaning discussion. If an email goes out to the mayor and full city council, a school board or a county commission and asks for them to reply to the group, that's a conversation. If they were having that conversation - all of them face to face - that would be an official meeting - open and public. But, as of now, if it's email or text, it's not public.
While the law already says that teleconferences conducted by elected officials are subject to open meeting laws, elected officials can now have a similar group conversation via email or text and there is nothing that makes that conversation open and public. Common sense says that's just not right. Conceivably, an entire agenda for an elected body could be discussed using email or text messaging. While that's unlikely, here's one example of what could happen. An email goes out to the full school board and asks for comments about a proposal to phase out the district's art program. Everyone is invited to share his or her views.
As the law now stands, the public is excluded from observing that discussion. While no official action can be taken until the board meets in an official session, the discussion that led to the decision remains hidden from public view. The board meets, votes and since the entire discussion was conducted by email, no one knows what led to the decision; there's no official record of that discussion. Common sense says that's just not right.
Elected officials have accepted the framework in which they do the people's business for decades. That includes notice of meetings, posted agendas and holding those meetings in public.
When people think of teleconference, Gov. Daugaard said "You're thinking of someone on the phone. But if you're texting each other and you're replying to all, really, if you think about it, that's no different. It's just a different way of chatting back and forth and those should be subject to the open meeting notices and the texts would need to be an open record."
Gov. Daugaard clearly gets it. Now it's up to our legislators. The measure gained a slim 7-6 approval from the House State Affairs Committee last week and is headed for a vote by all representatives in the House. Contact your representatives and tell them to vote yes on HB 1113. HB 1113 deserves full support in the House and then the Senate. Regardless of technological advances and forms of communication, the principle of open and public debate is critical.
Tim L. Waltner is publisher of the Freeman Courier and the Hutchinson Herald, Menno. He also serves on the South Dakota Newspaper Association's First Amendment Committee.
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