Sully County Commissioners have spent more than eleven hours in executive session in 2020, stating their purposes for closing the meeting as for matters of personnel or for legal matters. For the second time this year, Sully County Commissioners last Thursday had a special meeting with the intent of going into executive session.
The first special meeting was in January for personnel to consider how to fill the Sully County Highway secretary position after the person who was offered the position withdrew her application. At that meeting, when commissioners returned to regular session, they voted to add the position to the Auditor’s office for a trial period of six months with a pay increase to the Auditor of $250 per pay period and an increase of $2.00 per hour to the Deputy Auditor.
At the meeting last Thursday, commissioners went into special session for personnel, and when after three hours they returned to regular session, they took no action.
Commissioners also went into executive session at four of their seven regular meetings this year.
In comparison, Hughes County Commissioners went into executive session once in fifteen meetings, Hyde County Commissioners went into executive session zero times in six meetings, and Potter County Commissioners went into executive session eight times in fourteen meetings in 2020.
According to SDCL 1-25, ‘Executive or closed meetings may be held for the sole purposes of: (1) Discussing the qualifications, competence, performance, character or fitness of any public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee. The term, employee, does not include any independent contractor; (2) Discussing the expulsion, suspension, discipline, assignment of or the educational program of a student or the eligibility of a student to participate in interscholastic activities provided by the South Dakota High School Activities Association; (3) Consulting with legal counsel or reviewing communications from legal counsel about proposed or pending litigation or contractual matters; (4) Preparing for contract negotiations or negotiating with employees or employee representatives; (5) Discussing marketing or pricing strategies by a board or commission of a business owned by the state or any of its political subdivisions, when public discussion may be harmful to the competitive position of the business; or (6) Discussing information listed in subdivisions 1-27-1.5(8) and 1-27-1.5(17).
The South Dakota Attorney General explains, ‘Discussion in the executive session must be strictly limited to the announced subject. No official votes may be taken on any matter during an executive session.’ This is further defined in SDCL 1-25: ‘However, any official action concerning such matters shall be made at an open official meeting. An executive or closed meeting shall be held only upon a majority vote of the members of the public body present and voting, and discussion during the closed meeting is restricted to the purpose specified in the closure motion. Nothing in § 1-25-1 or this section prevents an executive or closed meeting if the federal or state Constitution or the federal or state statutes require or permit it. A violation of this section is a Class 2 misdemeanor.’
Going into executive session for personnel or legal matters as the commissioners have done follows the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it.
As noted on the South Dakota Attorney General’s website, ‘Citizens deserve a government that is open and transparent.’
Furthermore, the county’s decision to dismantle their website is contrary to the Attorney General’s recommendation that ‘Unless there is a clear, compelling, and legal reason, information should be easily accessible.’ It is also a disservice to constituents who have disability that prevents them from negotiating the courthouse steps.
The Sully County Commission should be working harder to become more open in order promote civic engagement and trust in government. As a means of encouraging constituents, commission meetings should be held in the evening, outside of regular business hours; less time should be spent in executive session; and the county website should be reinstated.