Executive sessions should arouse suspicion. Elected officials meeting behind closed doors with no obligation to report or document discussions can only raise questions.
It is especially troublesome when elected boards do this routinely as does the Pennington County Commission in South Dakota, which since 2016 has held executive sessions after more than 60 percent of scheduled meetings, which are twice a month. They have become so routine county staff now lists them on every agenda without even a vague reference to the need for secrecy.
Three commissioners — Lloyd LaCroix, Deb Hadcock and Ron Buskerud — cited employee turnover, property deals, construction projects and legal issues to justify the rash of executive sessions, according to a story by Rapid City Journal reporter Samuel Blackstone. Two commissioners — George Ferebee and Mark DiSanto — declined to return calls, which suggests an indifference to concerns that executive sessions are being abused.
South Dakota law only encourages public boards to list reasons for an executive session but does require a motion be made and a vote taken before it can be held. Once in executive session, boards should only discuss personnel issues, litigation, employee contract negotiations, marketing strategies for publicly owned businesses, and issues regarding students, which mostly applies to school boards. But, of course, it's impossible to know if that is the case unless they decide to disclose, which rarely, if ever, happens.
There is no requirement that minutes be taken or the meeting be recorded to discourage violations of the state’s open meetings law, which makes allegations difficult to prove as Ferebee learned after he lodged a complaint against the state Water Management Board for an executive session held in 2016. Ferebee claimed the deliberations were illegal and that inaccurate minutes were kept.
In rejecting his arguments, the Open Meetings Commission that consists of five state’s attorneys decided to “construe the word deliberation broadly.” Even if someone does prevail with a complaint, a public reprimand is the only penalty.
North Dakota law requires that closed sessions be recorded and minutes taken.
In the era of President Donald Trump, it is becoming popular to distrust the federal government and for good reasons. The federal bureaucracy is so large, distant and virtually impenetrable that it is difficult if not impossible to hold decision-makers accountable. The same can be said of locally elected officials who take advantage of executive sessions.
State law, however, does not require them to discuss personnel issues, legal matters, and development and marketing strategies in private — that is their choice. Since little hope exists that state lawmakers will narrow the reasons a public board can meet in secret or require them to record those meetings, it is up to taxpayers to call for change. You can do that by calling the county commission at 394-2171 and demanding more transparency.
Government works best for the public when it is held accountable, which can't happen when elected officials choose to avoid scrutiny.
-- Rapid City (S.D.) Journal