When The Sun Doesn’t Shine

Well, it feels good to get that off my chest.

Since the fall of 2009, I have periodically worked on a research project that finally saw the light of day in Saturday’s edition of the Press & Dakotan.

It started as a question of how the number of executive sessions held by the Yankton City Commission compares to other cities around South Dakota. It was also spurred by a desire to see if there is more of a “culture of secrecy” in one place over another. How much the number or frequency of executive sessions reveal in that regard is up for debate. Still, I found the numbers very interesting.

The truth is, the volume of executive sessions vary widely across the state. Aberdeen has closed sessions at 23 percent of its regular meetings, while Rapid City holds executive sessions at 81 percent of its meetings. The other eight cities I examined fall all over in between those two extremes.

Originally, I had wanted to add county and school boards into the mix, but going through five years worth of meeting minutes for 10 different cities — some of which meet weekly — proved to be a much more time-consuming task than I anticipated. I worked on the project when I could in the office but ultimately had to do a lot of it at home just so I could get it done.

Never mind that I had wanted to compare South Dakota’s executive session laws and practices to other states … By the end of the process with the cities, I just wanted to get something out there to show my editor that I had indeed been doing some good work with this project we talked about periodically for more than a year.

If only I was in grad school, I think I could have easily developed some sort of thesis paper around the project and had something a bit more to show for it!!!

Perhaps I will have to do follow-ups down the road to build upon what I’ve done already. I was happy to learn today that other media outlets in the state are doing work to build upon my project. That is gratifying, and I look forward to seeing their work.

I think we can all agree there are legitimate reasons for holding executive sessions. The question is, are they always used because they are absolutely necessary? Or are there cases where they are held because it is easier to discuss certain things behind closed doors? Remember, the South Dakota open meetings law is permissive. It doesn’t say you have to meet in executive session for anything. It simply says that you can.

My hope is this information will get the public and those who serve the public to give the issue some thought.

Take a look at the data I collected here.

Here and here are the two stories I wrote on the subject.

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