There is a bill of momentous import to South Dakota citizens currently making its way through the state legislature.
It’s called Senate Bill 84 and it aims to change a few things in the state’s public records law. First and foremost, the bill will ban governments in the state from entering into secret legal settlements with third parties.
For those unfamiliar with current state law, there exists a broad exemption that allows the parties to a lawsuit to keep out of court settlement terms secret provided they all agree to do so. Now, this makes perfect sense in the private sector. Confidential settlements can help streamline the legal process and the public doesn’t have a right to know what two private parties agree to behind closed doors.
The problem is that state law doesn’t bar public entities i.e. city governments from using this particular exemption to hide their mistakes. You see when a city, or really any government for that matter, is sued, it’s usually because someone thinks the city screwed up. And if the city admits to making a mistake, as often as not, they pay a financial penalty for it.
If there are two things local governments shouldn’t be allowed to keep from their constituents, it’s a mistake and what they spent taxpayer money on. In South Dakota, however, that’s exactly what’s been allowed to happen.
The people of Fort Pierre had a brush with this early last summer when the city council voted to enter into secret settlement to end a lawsuit over its handling of the Riverwalk Landing project. The city’s taxpayers don’t know what the city agreed to or how much the city agreed to pay to end the lawsuit and that’s just wrong.
Hopefully, Senate Bill 84 will make it to the Governor’s desk. To help it along, give your legislators call or shoot them an email telling them to vote for the bill.