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KATIE ZERR: Transparency in government equals the people’s trust

“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” –Patrick Henry.
Transparency in government is essential for the security of a nation. It is important on every level of government and with every citizenry board.
A lack of transparency results in distrust in a government. When governing bodies hide actions from the people, they lose credibility and value to the people.
Those bodies that hide discussions on issues or make decisions behind closed doors, spawn an environment of concealment and damage the democratic process.
State governments, including that of South Dakota are notorious for lack of transparency. The state is ranked in the top 10 on the list of corrupt governments by watchdog groups. The creators of these lists point out that lobbyists have their way with South Dakota lawmakers and disclosure forms are vague and lack accountability. South Dakota is ranked 49th in oversight and often gets an “F” grade in integrity in government assessments by the Center for Public Integrity.
In fact, a recent list (2015) shows this group gave ‘F” grades to South Dakota in the following categories: political financing; electoral oversight; executive and legislative accountability; civil service management, lobbying disclosures, ethics enforcement and state pension fund management.
The sad truth is that South Dakota has taken great steps forward in transparency in the last eight years under the Daugaard administration, but we haven’t gotten over the perceived need for secrecy on all levels of government in our state.
For some reason, especially on the local levels, in some areas of the state, boards feel discussion on all issues have a need for the veil of secrecy.
It seems it is hard to change our ways.
Newspaper people run into those veils on a regular basis. Whether on the state, county, city or school levels, some board members don’t believe in the public’s right to know. In fact, according to many tales from those newspaper people, county commissions can be the most secretive of government boards. The abuse of executive sessions is widely reported, yet is often scoffed at when pointed out to those boards.
The exchange of horror stories about the roadblocks thrown up to hinder reporters is a frequent pastime when newspaper people gather at the state convention.
Many have stories of boards refusing to release information because in their minds they don’t have to or nothing will happen to them if they don’t.
South Dakota does have an open meeting law, but some boards either don’t understand it or simple don’t care.
In state statute, the description of entities that fall under the open meeting law is, “The open meetings law applies to all public bodies of the state or its political subdivisions that exercise sovereign power derived from state law.”
This includes cities, counties, school boards and other public bodies created by ordinance or resolution, such as appointed boards, task forces, and committees, so long as they have authority to actually exercise sovereign power.”
But we newspaper people find it is hard for some of these board members to break old habits, and it is tough to get them to understand that transparency means accountability on every level.
It makes reporters and editors suspicious when a board refuses to release information such as meeting information packets or covers a discussion on issues with an executive session. There are only two reasons for executive sessions: legal issues and personal issues. All other issues must be discussed in open sessions.
Under the Daugaard administration, there was legislation passed that pushed for transparency and accountability, but there is much more work to be done.
Our legislators get angry when it is pointed out to them that they receive failing grades when it comes to open government, yet they fail to see the problems with closed caucuses and closed doors.
When the people discover government officials have held secret meetings on issues the public should be aware of, or when we find out that we have been lied to about what our officials know, distrust follows.
James Madison was one of the founding fathers and an advocate for a strong federal government. He is hailed as the “Father of the Constitution” for his influence on the composition of our Constitution. Madison was an advocate of transparency in government.
He said, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
That includes in South Dakota.
– Katie Zerr –

“While transparency reduces corruption, good governance goes beyond transparency in achieving openness. Openness means involving the stakeholders in decision-making process. Transparency is the right to information while openness is the right to participation.- Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India.