Should committees, boards, task forces and the like be open to the public?

The South Dakota Newspaper Association sent an e-mail to its members recently about Senate Bill 104, which seeks to clarify which committees, boards, task forces and other such sub-groups of state and local governments are subject to the state’s open-meetings law. In Mitchell, those sub-groups would include such things as the Park and Recreation Board, the Airport Board, the Corn Palace Festival Board, the Golf and Cemetery Board and the Lake Mitchell Advisory Committee, among dozens of others.

Currenty, the de facto position of many government officials is that the open-meetings law only applies to the main government body, such as the City Council, and not to the various sub-groups that the body appoints. That’s why Mitchell’s Events Center Task Force, for example, was allowed to meet in private for two years before its arena proposal was rejected by voters in 2007.

I wrote a story about Senate Bill 104 for today’s edition. I was told that the bill will basically seek to identify two types of government sub-groups: those that have final decision-making authority, and those that are merely advisory in nature. Only the former would be subject to the open-meetings law under the language that is expected to be amended into the bill.

Sen. Dave Knudson, R-Sioux Falls, the bill’s sponsor, told me that there’s too much opposition to pass a bill that would extend the open-meetings law to cover all committees, boards, task forces and the like. Apparently, there are many government groups who think such an extension of openness would be a bad thing. They think it would discourage citizens from serving on such bodies, because they’d be afraid of public scrutiny. They also think the agenda and minute-keeping requirements that come with the open-meetings law would be too great a burden for some of the minor committees.

It’s the newspaper association’s position, meanwhile, that all of the bodies that do the public’s work should do their work in public, with some very limited exceptions.

What do you think? Should all, some or none of our state and local committees, task forces and other such groups be subject to the open-meetings law?

11 thoughts on “Should committees, boards, task forces and the like be open to the public?

  1. When public business is conducted in public, accountability and transparency are by-products. If done in secret, then no one should be surprised when citizens become skeptical or worse, cynical.
    Let the sunshine in.

  2. Seems pretty simple to me. SDCL 1-25-1 tells us that the public’s business should be conducted in public unless one of the limited exceptions of SDCL 1-25-2 applies.

    1-25-1 [Emphasis added.] Except as otherwise provided by law, the official meetings of the state and the political subdivisions thereof, INCLUDING ALL RELATED BOARDS, COMMISSIONS AND OTHER AGENCIES, AND THE OFFICIAL MEETINGS OF BOARDS, COMMISSIONS AND AGENCIES CREATED BY STATUTE OR WHICH ARE NONTAXTAXPAYING AND DERIVE A SOURCE OF REVENUE DIRECTLY FROM PUBLIC FUNDS, shall be open to the public, except as provided in this chapter.

    1-25-2 lists 5 specific exceptions. 1-Employee qualifications, performance, and competence. 2-Student discipline. 3-Legal consultation. 4-Contract negotiation with collective bargaining units. 5-Pricing and marketing strategy for government owned business.

    There’s no need for legislation determining which meetings are subject to the law. They ALL are!

  3. That’s what you would think. The trouble is, the law doesn’t work in reality like it’s supposed to in theory. As I said in my story, many of the committees in Mitchell are closed. If you want them opened, we probably need new legislation. The existing law hasn’t gotten the job done.

  4. Curious about something: What would happen if a citizen or a member of the media would just show up for one of these meetings that apparently can (but not have to be) closed?
    It’s a shame that there must be a law. Except for certain exceptions, such as sensitive personnel matters, these meetings should be open to the public. In the meantime, public officials should not be dismayed when people second-guess them or maybe are wary of their motives.

  5. Here’s the trouble with your question. Unless a committee, board, task force or other such group is covered by the open-meetings law, they don’t have to post agendas or provide notice of their meetings. It would therefore be difficult to show up at one of their meetings, because you most likely wouldn’t know when or where the meeting is taking place.

    That’s the problem I run into all the time with committees in Mitchell. There are only two — the Historic Preservation Commission and the Lake Mitchell Advisory Committee — that regularly send me their agendas. For all the rest of the committees, I have to scramble to figure out what’s going on.

    So I’ve long thought that our state law needs to be clarified so that reporters (and the public) can say “The law says committees X, Y and Z are covered by the open-meetings law, and I want to receive their notices and agendas.” Right now, I’m often told that none of the committees are covered by the open-meetings law, and I’m therefore not entitled to get notices or agendas from them.

    You wouldn’t think it would be so difficult for public bodies to provide notices of meetings and agendas. But it’s something that I as a reporter deal with all the time, and I think that’s where this bill came from. It’s trying to address that frustrating situation. Whether the bill is the right approach, well, that remains to be seen.

  6. In the name of accountability to, and in serving, the public, it would seem that agendas and meetings be available TO the public, be they open meetings or coverage by the media. A ruling clarifying open meetings would certainly help. Thanks for great investigative reporting, Seth.

  7. Go to this link: http://www.cityofmitchell.org/city_council/city_commitees/index.htm. It’s a list of 40 city of Mitchell committees.

    The first seven committees in the left-hand column are committees of the City Council, so I get agendas from them with the City Council agenda. Otherwise, the only other committees on that list that send me their agendas are the Historic Preservation Commission and the Lake Mitchell Advisory Committee.

    I’ve asked twice, as I recall, to receive meeting notices and agendas from all city committees. The request was refused because it’s city government’s belief that none of the committees are subject to the open-meetings law. The only reason I get the agendas from the Historic Preservation Commission and the Lake Mitchell Advisory Committee is because their chairpeople are kind enough to do it.

    As for the events center, that’s far from old news. As you’ll see by going to the link that I provided, there are three existing events-center committees. There’s another event-center committee consisting of people from Avera, DWU and the city that isn’t on the list.

    The reason I want agendas from all of these committees is so that I can try to keep you informed about what your government is doing.

  8. Get to know some of the people on the committees or better yet, get on one, or two or three like the rest of us. Your outgoing boss was on the event center committee so don’t claim conflict of interest. Make some friends on these boards and I am sure you can go to a meeting two to three times a day. Good luck.

  9. Being on a board or committee that I, as the city hall reporter, am tasked with covering would be a blatant breach of journalistic ethics. If you saw a story about a committee meeting that was written by somebody who participated in the meeting, would you trust it? I’d hope not. That’s why journalists are supposed to be observers, not participants.

    Beyond that, I don’t think I’m going to get any invitations from City Hall to join a committee if I can’t even get agendas. The whole point of not providing agendas is to keep me from covering the meetings. Letting me join a committee would be counter-productive, from their perspective.

    One of my formers bosses was indeed on the events center committee. But he was the publisher, not the editor. As publisher, he had no role in the day-to-day operations of the newsroom.

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