Secret Government Wins Again in Closed Pierre [OPINION]
I shouldn’t be surprised by the brazen efforts to keep the operation of South Dakota government in the dark.
But it’s still stunning to see it expressed with such disregard for the greater good.
The latest scene in the South Dakota saga of violations of the public trust happened last week in – wait for it – the state capitol in Pierre.
I know, shocking, right.
You’ll remember that Mayor Mike Huether spearheaded a secret settlement over the warped siding on the Denny Sanford Premier Center.
You’ll also remember that when the mayor announced there was a settlement – the details were sealed – he said it was a “million bucks.”
You’ll remember that it wasn’t a million bucks, but something less than half that.
Of course, nobody would have found out about that if the Argus Leader hadn’t sued to open the document.
And even then, if the city’s lawyers would have walked down the street and filed the lawsuit against the contractors -- which they’d threatened to file in an earlier press conference -- we probably still wouldn’t know the truth.
Which brings us back to Pierre, where freedom goes to die.
Rusch, the Republican former judge, suggested that maybe, just maybe, spending the people’s money to settle cases, that may or may not involve impropriety by government officials, without letting the people see the details of that settlement, may not be in line with the principles of a free people governing themselves.
His proposal actually passed the Senate and then died in the House committee.
Here’s where the brazenness comes in.
During the testimony on the bill, Rep. Chuck Turbiville – who also happens to be the mayor Deadwood – said such secret settlements just aren’t a problem outside Sioux Falls.
And I love this quote from a story on the debate by my friend Jonathan Ellis at the Argus Leader: “Transparency isn’t always a good thing,” said Pierre lawyer Dick Tieszen, who represented the state’s school boards, sheriffs and State Farm Insurance. “Sometimes, it’s a very hurtful thing when it deals with you personally or your family members.”
Let’s focus for a moment on the attitude at work here, that it’s a Sioux Falls problem. That in rural South Dakota government secrecy isn’t an issue, that public office holders in small towns are somehow less prone to misspend your money than Mike Huether.
In fact, Huether has to walk a lot lighter because there’s a reporter chronicling his every move and people willing to sue him to find out the truth. The fact of the matter is that we don’t have any idea what’s going on out there in rural South Dakota.
There’s nobody watching in most cases, or if they are they aren’t in any sort of position to actually challenge these public officials.
South Dakota is a closed society.
There are a multitude of examples in state and local government when your elected representatives or the career bureaucrats in Pierre spend your money without any accountability.
Consider that professional contracts with the state – lawyers, engineers – are closed other than the maximum amount approved. The details of what we paid for are not open to the public.
That’s your money.
Consider that if a county employee runs into a car with a plow or what have you, any settlement resulting from that negligence is closed.
That’s your money.
This isn’t some philosophical debate over open records and meetings.
It’s your money.
It amazes me that in a state so dedicated to fighting tax increases, from user fees, to gas taxes, to school funding or mental health, that those same people have no problem spending the public’s money in private.
Meanwhile, the tax protesters from Murdo to Mitchell to Deadwood, think secret back room deals, between whoever passes for the power brokers, are just fine.
It would be simple to say that South Dakotans are just trusting people who elected solid folk to public office.
And people do say that.
With a straight face.
It’s a cultural aberration that uses the myth of neighborly integrity as a shield against honest self-examination.
As long as we continue to defend this twisted logic, we will get the secret government we deserve.
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