Openness in government: “Democracies die behind closed doors. The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people’s right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully, and accurately.” Judge Damon Keith, U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals
Is government too open, or not open enough?
It depends on where you are standing.
If you are a journalist, you often bump up against closed doors that guard conversations and actions by public officials, both elected and appointed. These public servants may be at high levels of state or federal government, or on the town council.
If you are one of those public officials, you may feel that the media is pushy, arrogant and sometimes inaccurate in its efforts to get the story.
This being Sunshine Week, a national observance to emphasize the importance of openness in government, it’s a good time to reflect on whether government has become “transparent” enough to keep citizens informed. Goodness knows, examples abound in South Dakota to illustrate the need for open government. Start with the EB-5 program, which allowed foreigners to buy green cards for themselves and a route to permanent U.S. citizenship. When former state Economic Development Secretary Richard Benda, who was heavily involved in the program, died as a result of a shotgun blast, it blew the lid off the program and raised more questions than the sinking of the Titanic.
And then there was, and is, the Mid-Central Education Cooperative scandal and the horrifying deaths and destruction it left in its wake.
There are other examples that show why openness is essential to expose conflicts of interest and other wrongdoing. Government accountability often needs the penetrating light of the press to keep its house in order.
Closer to home, when I reported last summer on the 25-year-old arson case of the Taft Hotel in Chamberlain, my efforts to see the investigation files were rebuffed by law enforcement. A reader asked me why I didn’t use the Freedom of Information Act to access some answers. I had to tell him that FOI requests pertain to the federal government only. It is easier to obtain information from the federal government, in some cases, than agencies controlled by South Dakota statute.
As a footnote, the South Dakota Newspaper Association made some inquiries early in the current legislative session to see if there was a possibility of modifying the pertinent statutes on that quarter-century arson case. The answer: No.
The fight for open government is an ongoing one.
March 16, 2016