Last week, the South Dakota House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee voted 10 to 3 to kill Senate Bill 84, which would have prevented local governments from keeping legal settlements secret.

You read that right. Under current law, government in the state of South Dakota is given carte blanche to hide their mistakes and conceal the expenditure of tax dollars by negotiating a secret settlement. Last spring the City of Fort Pierre did exactly that by entering into a secret settlement with Diane London who sued the city over its handling of the Riverwalk Landing development in the Teton Island business district. There is no way now to know what, if any, mistakes were made or how much taxpayers were asked to shell out in order to settle the lawsuit.

The legislature’s failure to pass a simple restriction on the ability of governments to enter into secret legal settlements is yet another sad example of the disregard our own elected leaders have for us. They, for some reason, don’t feel they should be publicly accountable when they make a mistake. They also seem to believe that if a business working with a government screws up and is sued, it too, should be protected from being held publicly accountable.

Now, the folks who opposed SB 84 say secret settlements save taxpayers money by ending lawsuits earlier. That argument is bunk. In no way did SB 84 prevent anyone from settling a lawsuit. It simply would require that when a settlement involves a public entity, the result be made public. If you work for or with a government, you ought to know that you are accountable first and foremost to the people paying you for the work i.e. taxpayers. If you’re not comfortable with that, find another line of work.

The argument that SB 84 could have put victims of sexual harassment under public scrutiny doesn’t hold much water. If said victim has filed a lawsuit against the city, county or state, that’s a public record. A judge can seal parts of the case but the public will know that a lawsuit has been filed and will have a pretty good idea as to why it was filed. As far as settling such matters through mediation or some other process that doesn’t involve the courts, well that’s another matter entirely.

Opposition to SB 84 was based, mostly, on the desire of government officials elected or otherwise to hide their mistakes from the very people they serve. The death of the bill is yet another example of legislative hypocrisy in a state that supposedly prides itself on holding small government ideals.

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