State offers portal for local governments to post public information, but few use it
The Brown County Courthouse is located in Aberdeen and is connected to other county offices, such as the Auditor’s Office and the Brown County Jail. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)
Jackson County government officials don’t post public information on the internet.
The rural western South Dakota county, which serves roughly 2,800 residents spread over 1,871 square miles, doesn’t have a website.
And it doesn’t intend to, County Auditor Vicki Wilson said.
“It takes more time than we have staff,” she said.
State government offers a potential solution, but Jackson County isn’t using it. Nor are most other South Dakota counties, cities or other local governments.
It’s a website created by the Gov. Kristi Noem administration in 2021 where local governments can voluntarily upload their meeting notices, agendas and minutes, without having to manage their own website.
Only seven counties post information to the website on a regular and timely basis. Only one city, Sioux Falls, regularly posts upcoming meetings. No school boards actively use the site.
That’s 1% of all local governments in the state using the site.
Aurora is the sole county government to use the state-maintained website exclusively. Meanwhile, 54 counties have their own websites where many of them share information. Eleven counties, including Jackson, don’t appear to post any information online.
As for municipalities, nearly all cities with populations above 500 manage their own websites and keep them up to date. But municipalities with populations less than 500 are not as reliable.
Of 10 randomly picked municipalities with populations under 500, South Dakota Searchlight found that half didn’t manage websites or post information online. Two of the 10 that did have websites didn’t have current meeting agendas or minutes.
More local government stories from South Dakota Searchlight
State Sen. Randy Deibert, R-Spearfish, said he wasn’t aware of the state’s website for local governments. He’s also a county commissioner for Lawrence County, serves on the board of the South Dakota Association of County Commissioners, and owns a professional mapping and surveying business working with local governments.
While he thinks having public information available online is important for South Dakotans, he worries about adding another responsibility for local governments to upload information.
“I’m really worried about some of the smaller places in the state,” Deibert said. “I’ve consulted in most of these small places, and if it weren’t for grant programs and good people who work for little pay, they wouldn’t be successful.”
David Reiss, executive director of the South Dakota Municipal League, said he intends to publish an article in the organization’s monthly magazine this summer to encourage more municipal involvement on the site.
“The site is underutilized right now,” Reiss said. “At the end of the day, providing an access point to public meeting documents is incredibly valuable to keep the public informed. … There’s always a need to read and understand what’s going on in local government, and sites like this keep people involved. That’s incredibly valuable.”
The site is maintained by the South Dakota Bureau of Information and Telecommunications and costs about $100 a year to host. Other maintenance costs and updates, funded by the Municipal League, have been minimal, said Daniel Hoblick, spokesman for the bureau.
Another source for public information about local governments is the South Dakota public notices database, which is operated by the South Dakota Newspaper Association.
The site has existed for over a decade, but it was just last year that the database started to include public notices from all local governments and newspapers, rather than merely a portion of them. That was due to a law the Legislature passed during the 2022 session requiring all newspapers to post public notices to the database.
The database isn’t funded by the government, so the association and local newspapers are bearing all the costs.
Local governments also continue to pay for the publication of public notices in local printed newspapers, as required by state law. While some local governments have pushed to get rid of those costs (which can range from a few thousand dollars annually for a small city to tens of thousands for cities the size of Sioux Falls or Rapid City), South Dakota Newspaper Association Executive Director Dave Bordewyk said it’s important to have all options available: printed in the paper and on multiple websites – “the more the merrier.”
“The more you can provide access and transparency to citizens to access information, all the better,” Bordewyk said.
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