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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Dense clouds are forecast for Sunshine Week

Observing Sunshine Week in Aberdeen is like Al Qaida reciting The Beatitudes. Or Paris Hilton getting elected queen of the Purity Ball.

As is true of the entire state, Aberdeen is fighting it out with some Third World oligarchies for the distinction of the most closed and inacessible government. South Dakota has the distinction of being ranked 50th of all the states for its openness, its accessibility, and its integrity. [Read it for yourself in the Better Government Association's Integrity Index compiled with the help of the Ford Motor Company Center for Global Citizenship.]

Cl0sed government in South Dakota and Aberdeen is a bi-partisan effort. This year's legislature tried to further close government from public knowledge. One proposal would have made it easier for legislative committees and sessions to close themselves to the public. Another bill, SB 217, sponsored by a Democrat, diddled with some language, but offered absolutely nothing to open up government in South Dakota. It got tabled.

Laws governing public access to meetings and records in South Dakota give huge discretion to officials and bureaucrats about what can be declared closed or confidential. The catch-sentence is: Except as otherwise specifically provided by law, any records of a public entity is a public record, open and accessible for inspection during reasonable office hours. As used in this section, reasonable office hours includes all regular office hours of a public entity.

Well, law provides for the closing and denial of almost all meetings and records that deal with the performance of public officials and employees, transactions involving state funds collected from taxpayers, and a lot of provisions designed to keep South Dakotans in the dark.

Sometimes one must ponder whether people in South Dakota have any idea of what government by the people is all about or any notion of the rights and responsibilities it entails.

Sunshine Week this year is March 11-17. According to an item in that Aberdeen phenomenon that persists in calling itself a newspaper, an event planned as a Sunshine Week observance is at NSU on March 12 at the Student Center, as the old student union is now called. [Like good South Dakotans, the NSU administration is careful to avoid the word "union."] A 90-minute televised program begins at noon to be followed by a panel discussion by locals. With the newspaper's inimitable brand of journalistic precision, the story gives little hint as to how or where to gather, but it does encourage those attending to "bring a sack lunch." Which leaves us to wonder if the NSU food service no longer operates in the center or if it is being boycotted because some employee slipped up and referred to the place as the Student Union.

Anyway, this year's topic for Sunshine Week is "Closed Doors; Open Democracies." No one on the local panel represents a valid journalistic entity. Panelists are:

Jerome Ferson, publisher of the Aberdeen American News. The newspaper's news is undercut by editorial selections that belie a bias toward oppression and manipulation. The printing of letters-to-the-editor show blatant manipulation to cast those supporting the publication's ultra-conservative agenda in the best light, while refusing to print, delaying publication, and burying letters with opposing points of views. It might be interesting to hear Ferson explain the newspaper's editorial policy, but he does not come from an editorial background. Ferson comes from the accounting and financial side of the news business.

Mayor Mike Levsen is also listed on the panel. A former general manager of a radio station, Levsen had strong notions about what news he thought the public should hear. His news staff, for example, was forbidden to report on suicides. Levsen has carried that philosophy over into city government. He once dismissed a request for information on some matters going on in City Hall by saying that the public knows all it needs to know. Levsen became mayor during turmoil in the Police Department. A chief was fired. A number of long-time officers quit the department during that chief's tenure. Things really heated up with the new chief. More officers quit. The turmoil continued, and no elected officials in city government thought that the people who elected them and pay the bill for running the city, including their salaries, need to know what is going on. The ultimate boondoggle came from the suspicious death of Prof. Morgan Lewis on the NSU campus. The chief finally determined the death was a suicide, but no records of the investigation were produced in support of that conclusion. A number of people claim the investigation produced evidence that appears to contradict that conclusion. Mayor Levsen has been at the center of City Hall affairs. He appears to have serious reservations about letting the citizens know all that goes on in City Hall.

Another panelist is City Attorney Adam Altman. We really know little about him and have no record of his decisions and comments.

Prof. Ken Blanchard, a blogger and columnist for the American News, is also on the panel. I ended my contributions to the columns of the American News after a column of his used partial quotations and manipulated paraphrases to represent a posting on my blog. As a professor who taught writing and a member of an editorial board for academic journals, I found that the column used tactics that are proscribed in reputable writing. However, the real issue is with the American News. Even after challenged, the newspaper editors failed to acknowledge the errors of representation.

In the past, the American News has had publishers, editors, and writers who have tried to bring it up to the minimal standards for a news organization, but the gross incompetence and political agenda of its current news management staff remove it from consideration as a credible news agency. I do not support incompetence and dishonest manipulation of editorial matters.

In regard to the Morgan Lewis case, Ken Blanchard and fellow columnist and professor Jim Seeber did something no one else did. They requested an interview with the chief of police about the Morgan Lewis case. They got the interview and published information about the Chief's findings and reasoning. There was some effort, at least, to take the contoversy out of the realm of speculation and gossip and get at some facts.

However, they are commentators, not journalists, and they did not get to look at the investigative records to verify the facts and look for discrepancies and contradictions in the record. Once a case is closed, the record should be open for review by the public or, at least, in its behalf.

The Morgan Lewis case is just one of the more visible instances in which the public has been shut out of the operations of its government. Investigations have to be conducted in confidence in many cases. That is understood. But there comes a time when all records must be opened for examination and review.

In South Dakota, anything that can be construed as a "personnel" matter can be declared confidential. Most of the important decisions in government are "personnel" matters and involve an assessment of how well personnel are doing their jobs.

Despite the fact that records of death, marriages, and the like are required to be open by law, the state closed them last year under the pretext of preventing identity theft. No one challenged that violation of law.

Much of the problem accrues to the legal profession in the state which is unsually feckless when it comes to civil rights and open government.

So, Sunshine Week promises to be a gloomy occasion in Aberdeen and South Dakota. Some folks just like to live in the dark.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States