News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, June 25, 2007

Good start, but it isn't enough, damn it

The only person in the time I have lived in South Dakota who has seriously addressed the matter of closed government in the state is current Attorney General Larry Long. He has proposed putting in place a Freedom of Information Act that would specify how citizens, and therefore the press, can go about getting records on the business being done in the name of the people. This is a great idea, but it does not address matters that make the state the most secretive and repressive one in the union. That last comment is not hyperbole. The Better Government Association rankings on freedom of information and access to government place South Dakota dead last.

Attorney General Long's proposal does not address the statutory provisions to keep records closed on criminal investigations and business proceedings.

Often, during the course of a criminal investigation, it might be compromised if investigators reveal what they are doing. However, at some point, all records concerning an investigation should be open so the public can assess the integrity and competency of the investigation.

In Aberdeen, the death of Prof. Morgan Lewis on the day before the 2004 election is a case in point. The case was officially closed as a suicide, but the case involved the resignation of police officers, conflicting and unaccounted for information, and a level of secrecy that heightented suspicions about the integrity of the investigation. When the case was closed, all information should have been opened for public scrutiny.

Other investigations over the years have also accrued grave suspicions about their competence.

All business transactions involving any public entities should be open for examination. South Dakota officials have acted as if the cement plant, state owned railroads, and taxing agreements with credit companies are their private little secrets. Actually, they have been. And South Dakotans have been treated like idiots on the funny farm who are not competent to monitor their own affairs.

Any new provisions for Freedom of Information in South Dakota should first involve the repeal of some very bad and insidious laws. Then we can start talking about how to treat the people's business.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States