When two Huron men requested some public records, they were told to go to court. So they did.
Larry Cooper and Brad Tschetter have sued the Lake Byron Sanitary District under South Dakota’s public records law. The two are running for trustee positions on the district later this month amid controversy over the district’s decision to build a $5.4 million sewer system.
The sewer system project has created division among property owners on the lake, which is north and east of Huron.
In February, Cooper requested basic records from the district, records that were essential to the upcoming election. They included meeting minutes, income statements and records about the sanitary sewer project.
The project is controversial because the district’s trustees are seeking to impose costs on all property owners, even those who have lots that wouldn’t use the system. Seasonal property owners have accused year-round residents of forcing them to pay.
A separate lawsuit last year alleged that the trustees violated state election laws during a July election. In October, the parties agreed to a stipulation that a new election would take place this month. The trustees who supported the sanitary sewer project were appointed as a temporary, interim board under the settlement.
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Following Cooper’s request for the records, Jerry Lammers, a lawyer representing the district, emailed R. Shawn Tornow, a lawyer who represented Cooper and other property owners opposed to the sanitary sewer project. Lammers told Tornow that his clients would have to take the district to court if they wanted the records.
“They will be getting no documents whatsoever at this time,” Lammers wrote.
South Dakota law requires government entities to make records available for public inspection. Records open for inspection would include minutes, which are required to be published, and financial information.
Lammers told the Argus Leader that the interim board doesn’t have the authority to release the records.
“It’s our contention that they were not the official, elected trustees and don’t have the authority to go into things like that,” Lammers said. “The people who requested the records were told to wait until May 29.”
But Tornow said the board is required under law to release the records.
“It’s troubling to say the least that a governmental board such as this in the state of South Dakota would flat out deny access to public records, and as a part of their denial, boldly say, take us to court,” Tornow said. “Unfortunately, that’s what this board decided to do, and my clients took them up on their offer.”
Governments that wrongly reject open record requests can be fined $50 a day. Besides seeking the records, Tornow has asked a judge to impose the $50-a-day penalty.