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Governor signs bills strengthening open government laws

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    News Media Update         SOUTH DAKOTA         Freedom of Information    

Governor signs bills strengthening open government laws

  • Gov. Mike Rounds signed two bills into law last week that will limit the state’s gag law and add penalties for open meeting violations.

March 8, 2004 — South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R) strengthened his state’s open government laws Tuesday, signing legislation that eased free-speech restrictions and increased penalties for open meeting violations.

Both proposals were introduced on behalf of Attorney General Larry Long, and stemmed from the recommendations of his open government task force, which spent 15 months working to reform state law.

Each measure was approved in near unanimity in both South Dakota legislative houses. The bills were passed by the Senate 34-0 in late January. The House of Representatives passed the gag restriction bill 67-1, and the open meetings bill 68-1 on Feb. 24. Rounds, a Republican, signed both bills March 2.

Senate Bill 59 limits the reach of the state’s 1996 gag law by permitting the release of information by a state agency upon the completion of an audit or investigation. However, government officials are still not allowed to disclose details of ongoing investigations or release trade secrets of a private entity.

The new legislation also reduces the penalty for violating the gag law, from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Senate Bill 62 orders the creation of a statewide panel, consisting of five state’s attorneys, to hear complaints concerning open meetings violations. The panel is authorized to publicly censure government commissions and boards that improperly convene in private.

Local commissions and boards are required to grant public access to their meetings, although they are allowed to assemble behind closed doors to discuss legal matters, personnel and contract negotiations.

David C. Bordewyk, general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, said no one has ever been prosecuted by the state’s attorney general for violating the open meetings law, passed in 1965. The primary reason, Bordewyk said, is that the punishments almost never fit the crime.

Violation of the open meetings law calls for a $200 fine and as much as 30 days of jail time. Under the new law, charges can still be filed, but the attorney general’s office would also have the option of directing complaints to the panel for investigation.

“It’s a new venue for dealing with violations,” Bordewyk said. “We feel it’s a lot better than what we have now.”

(S.B. 59; S.B. 62) AB


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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