The Case For A More Transparent Yankton City Commission

What if I told you that the Yankton City Commission has spent almost exactly the same amount of time conducting meetings in public as it has in private this year?

It might sound hard to believe, but it’s true.

An examination of the available minutes for the Yankton City Commission in 2015 — which encompasses four meetings — reveals it has spent three hours, two minutes conducting its meetings in public. Meanwhile, it has convened executive sessions — or closed-door meetings — lasting a total of two hours, 42 minutes.

During 2014, the Yankton City Commission spent just more than 30 hours in regular session — and just more than 22 hours in executive session.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this indicates anything nefarious – and I am very sincere about that. I know the current commissioners to be good and honest people, and this issue is not about calling into question their integrity. There are legitimate reasons to hold executive sessions. The reasons listed for the four 2015 meetings are contractual and personnel matters.

However, I believe that elected officials and government employees need some measure of accountability for what goes on during these private meetings. Currently, South Dakota does not require that minutes or audio recordings be made of executive sessions.

The first thing I plan to introduce for consideration by the Yankton City Commission when I am sworn in May 11 is the adoption of an Iowa law that requires minutes and audio recordings of closed meetings.

During my time as a reporter covering local government, I found that the public was often bothered by the idea of boards going behind closed doors to discuss matters. It fueled speculation and distrust.

I think the Yankton City Commission — and government bodies across South Dakota, for that matter — could adopt this law that has been used in Iowa for some time and use it to reassure the public and promote transparency. Because the South Dakota Legislature is perennially reticent to enact open government laws, I believe we must take the lead at the local level.
If accusations of wrongdoing are made, there should be a record that can be reviewed by legal authorities to confirm or deny such accusations.

This can serve to protect elected representatives and government employees. It also encourages them to take seriously the limits placed upon executive sessions.

We have much to accomplish as a community, and the key to any good working relationship is trust.

I want to give Yankton residents as much reassurance as possible that their elected officials are conducting public business in public and, should we need to go behind closed doors, they can still hold us accountable.

As a community, we will also be able to hold our heads high as a beacon for open government in a state that is routinely considered among the worst in the nation when it comes to such laws.

Here are the two elements of the Iowa law that I am interested in adopting as policy for Yankton:

21.5 (1.j) — To discuss the purchase or sale of particular real estate only where premature disclosure could be reasonably expected to increase the price the governmental body would have to pay for that property or reduce the price the governmental body would receive for that property. The minutes and the audio recording of a session closed under this paragraph shall be available for public examination when the transaction discussed is completed.

21.5 (4) — A governmental body shall keep detailed minutes of all discussion, persons present, and action occurring at a closed session, and shall also audio record all of the closed session. The detailed minutes and audio recording of a closed session shall be sealed and shall not be public records open to public inspection. However, upon order of the court in an action to enforce this chapter, the detailed minutes and audio recording shall be unsealed and examined by the court in camera. The court shall then determine what part, if any, of the minutes should be disclosed to the party seeking enforcement of this chapter for use in that enforcement proceeding. In determining whether any portion of the minutes or recording shall be disclosed to such a party for this purpose, the court shall weigh the prejudicial effects to the public interest of the disclosure of any portion of the minutes or recording in question, against its probative value as evidence in an enforcement proceeding. After such a determination, the court may permit inspection and use of all or portions of the detailed minutes and audio recording by the party seeking enforcement of this chapter. A governmental body shall keep the detailed minutes and audio recording of any closed session for a period of at least one year from the date of that meeting, except as otherwise required by law.

Furthermore, Iowa Attorney General opinions have established:

A meeting may be closed under exemption (j) only when public discussion of the possible purchase or sale of particular real estate could be reasonably expected to increase the price demanded of that property or decrease the amount the government would receive in a sale.
The economic public interest that this exemption is intended to serve is clear. The exemption does not allow closed sessions for discussion of real estate in general. If a session is closed under this exemption, the records of that closed meeting must be made available for public examination when the transaction is completed or canceled.
Under Chapter 21.5(4) the minutes and tape recording of any closed session must be kept at least one year. If
more than a year should elapse between a meeting closed under Chapter
21.5(1)(j) and the completion of the real-estate transaction, the record of that closed session should be kept for a reasonable time after the completion of the transaction so it can be available for public examination.
I’ve been visiting with open government advocates in both South Dakota and Iowa about how this law could be adopted as City of Yankton policy. Preliminary discussions are that there is nothing preventing us from taking this step.
As a long-time advocate for more open government, this possibility has me genuinely excited. I look forward to discussing this matter with my peers in Yankton city government. Hopefully, I can convince them that this is a worthy action that makes our local government and residents winners.

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