Action falls under gray area of open meeting laws, legality

When Day County Commissioners met for regular session last week, they talked about several topics regarding spending taxpayer monies. No surprise. It’s their job to hold the purse strings. There was even something of a debate among commissioners at that March 21 meeting over what is or isn’t considered a misappropriation of funds. While that issue may not have been totally settled, there was no action taken.

Because it wasn’t on the agenda.

Conversations about items not on the agenda are routinely held at meetings of public bodies. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s just discussion, after all. The problem comes when those public bodies decide to spend money or take action on items not listed on the meeting’s agenda.

Exactly what Day County Commissioners did last week.

While this is not explicitly an illegal action according to South Dakota’s open meetings laws, it does get into a gray area over which a public board needs to be careful. Some might even think this is a trivial thing to make an issue of but the South Dakota Open Meetings Commission has had complaints filed over just such matters. There is a history of public boards across the state trying to slide decisions by without placing them on their agenda in order to avoid public scrutiny.

It shouldn’t matter if it’s just $50 or $500,000 – the public has a right to know where their tax dollars are being spent or if new rules and laws are going to be created which could impact their lives. That means we deserve fair warning of what action our elected officials may take.

Boards are allowed to amend their agenda at the beginning of the meeting if they want (a step many other boards in the county take although our commissioners skip that for some reason) but the Attorney General’s office generally advises just to put the item on the agenda from the get-go. That agenda is the public’s window into whether or not they need to show up to have their voice heard on a specific topic.

So while I don’t think there was any nefarious motive in this situation, it is a bad habit for any board to start. In the case of Day County Commissioners approving travel for an undisclosed cost to taxpayers (see story starting on page 1 of this issue), there would have been time to postpone a decision and hold a special meeting before the event in question.

This sort of practice may frustrate the public and their right to know.

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