HURON — Establishment of an open meetings commission and an overhaul of the open records law in South Dakota in recent years have been positive steps in government transparency, but the next hill to climb is for the public to have access to government correspondence, the state newspaper association’s lobbyist and executive director said.
Steps have been taken in the areas of freedom of information and the public’s right to know,” Dave Bordewyk said.
“My bottom line assessment on that is we have made progress on that front in South Dakota,” he said. “However, there is much, much more work that needs to be done.”
In a presentation at the District 22 Democratic Forum, he also noted how the newspaper industry’s business model has changed with the advent of digital advertising.
Two platforms – Google and Facebook – now account for 60 percent of ads sold globally, he said.
When the open meetings commission consisting of state’s attorneys was empaneled about 15 years ago, it gave the public the ability to file complaints about possible violations of the open meetings law.
Dozens of complaints have been filed and about half have resulted in determinations of violations. Commission members can’t levy fines or impose jail terms, but do issue their position on each matter.
The most positive outcome of the process is the education of local government entities on what is and is not allowed by law, Bordewyk said.
Revamping of the state’s open records law a decade ago was another positive step, he said. A third step was the process by which people can file an appeal to a state administrative examiner in Pierre if they aren’t getting access to government records, he said.
The biggest challenge that Bordewyk predicts will be overcome at some point is access to government correspondence, such as emails, official letters and communications from government officials.
Government correspondence is a public record in almost every state, but not in South Dakota.
He said there has been considerable push back even though backers stress it doesn’t include personal emails, but only official correspondence.
“I think that’s what we need to address in South Dakota,” he said about access to correspondence involving the official duties of government employees.
“Because when you start to think about all the work that government does, so much of it does get done through correspondence,” he said.
Another priority is to do a better job in defining for local boards what can and can’t be discussed in executive sessions. Too often elected officials wander into territory not allowed to be discussed behind closed doors, he said.
The association is also lobbying for more release of 911 calls, so the public is not left wondering what exactly happened. While some would argue it’s because of one-party domination in Pierre, Bordewyk thinks the bigger issue is that South Dakota too often has a “trust me” attitude.
“We all know each other, have sort of that trust-me-neighbor kind of attitude that has permeated our communities, our culture and our government,” he said.
South Dakota’s 125 daily and weekly newspapers have dwindled in number slightly, and yet the state still has more newspapers per capita than any other state in the country, Bordewyk said.
But newsrooms have shrunk dramatically and taking up the slack in writing stories of statewide interest are nonprofits like South Dakota News Watch. Stories are written weekly and distributed to all media outlets for use for free, Bordewyk said. The organization is funded through contributions from individuals and entities.
Advertisers are moving more of their business online. Ads sold to newspaper web sites bring in dimes and nickels and not dollars, he said. Facebook sold more advertising in the second quarter of 2019 than the entire newspaper industry in the country does in a year, he said.
Aging publishers of small town newspapers want to retire, but can’t find buyers, he said.
“So the business model, the economic model for newspapers, is changing pretty dramatically and the challenge is to figure out what the path is forward,” Bordewyk said.
Still, he said what he always comes back to is the need to focus on journalism that survives regardless of the platform the news and information is delivered and consumed on.
“We need journalism in this country,” he said. “We need it locally, we need it in the state, we need it in the United States. Our society, our form of government, democracy, depends on good journalism.”