The Senate floor in the South Dakota Capitol at Pierre. (Joshua Haiar/SD Searchlight)
Whenever the topic is citizens being mistreated by their local government, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase, “There oughta be a law.”
Well, if you’ve been mistreated by a local government entity and your friend is a member of the state House of Representatives, a new law is what you’re going to get.
That’s what happened in 2018 when Rep. Elizabeth May, a Republican from Kyle, told her colleagues about attending a local meeting of a government entity with a friend of hers who wanted to address the board about a particular issue.
They sat through 30 minutes of old and new business and then waited outside the meeting room for an hour while the board went into executive session. Done with executive session, the board adjourned and made their escape out a side door. It’s always odd when public servants go out of their way to avoid the public.
As a consequence of that board’s actions, May brought House Bill 1172, a bill to require a period of public comment at all regular meetings of local government. It was successfully endorsed by the Legislature, signed by the governor and has been the law of the land for the past few years.
This year another public comment bill is up for consideration: Senate Bill 162, which has been approved by the Senate Local Government Committee. The current law mandates a public comment period at all “regularly scheduled” meetings. Over time, citizens found that the public comment period they became accustomed to was not on the agenda during work sessions or emergency meetings since they are not “regular” meetings.
The very nature of an emergency meeting cries out for public comment. A school board may have an emergency meeting if a tornado has swept away a school. A city council may have an emergency meeting if the town’s sewer system has gone horribly wrong. A county commission may have an emergency meeting if an often-used bridge collapses.
Public boards and commissions have read the law and found that at a time of emergency — just when the public may want to comment on the situation at hand — that pesky time for public comment doesn’t have to be included on the agenda.
SB162 would fix that, changing the law to say that a time of public comment will be included on all “official” meetings of local governmental bodies, not just regularly scheduled meetings. It’s a worthy change, but it doesn’t go far enough.
While requiring a time for public comment was a step in the right direction, it has been mishandled by some public government boards and councils. Like the board that snuck out the side door rather than listen to Rep. May’s friend, some boards and commissions are circumventing public comment. They do this by testing the public’s patience and putting the comment period at the end of the agenda. By the time they get to the end of the agenda and the public comment period, the item that citizens wanted to comment on may already have been dealt with by the board.
If lawmakers want to give a real boost to public comment, they should amend SB162 so that public comment is at the top, rather than the bottom, of the agenda. At a perfect meeting, the top of the agenda should read: Call to order, Pledge of Allegiance, approve agenda, public comment.
Many commissions and boards already have their agendas in the right order. They put public comment at the start of the meeting, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have their own complaints about the way they have been told to run their meetings.
The problem is that some citizens believe the public comment period on the agenda allows them to share their thoughts on anything that’s bothering them. Consequently, they’ll use their time at the microphone to comment on their hatred of vaccines, their love of guns or the shortcomings of the president.
The creation of a public comment period has highlighted the public’s general lack of knowledge about how local government works. This is apparent as some use their public comment time at the city council meeting to talk about the latest scandal at the school. County commissioners are forced to listen to grievances about the city police force.
As they consider SB 162, legislators should consider another amendment, this one limiting public comment to those items on the meeting agenda.
By itself, SB 162 is a good step toward ensuring citizens always have a voice in their government. Making two amendments — to put public comments at the top of the agenda and limiting comments to topics on the agenda — would go a long way toward ensuring better government and, we can only hope, shorter meetings in South Dakota.
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