Billie Sutton, the Democratic candidate for governor, has made an issue of changing the culture in the state capitol, which is figuratively and literally somewhat isolated from the rest of the state.
In order to gauge his desire to make state government more open and transparent, Journal reporter Seth Tupper asked state Sen. Sutton on Oct. 26 if he would release his government emails to the public. The response: “Sure.”
As of Friday, the Journal still awaits those emails, which if received would be a watershed moment since state lawmakers have chosen to regard public officials’ emails as off-limits to taxpayers and residents.
Sutton, however, did update the Journal on his efforts to deliver the promised emails. It was predictable, revealing and disappointing all at the same time.
The state lawmaker reported the Legislative Research Council, or LRC, requested he redact a list of items so sweeping that it guarantees no meaningful information will be seen by public eyes (predictable).
The list also raises questions about the kind of personal information that apparently is being shared by lawmakers, state officials and who knows who else since that too appears to be off-limits to the public (revealing).
According to Sutton, the LRC requested that he redact: Social Security numbers, financial documents, executive session information, juvenile documents, personnel records, transcripts, student records, medical records, proprietary or trade secrets, Revolving Economic Development and Initiative meeting documents, and confidential disclosures.
The list indicates that lawmakers and state officials share a lot of personal information. Why do they need to email Social Security numbers, medical, financial, student and juvenile records, and trade secrets? Sounds like a gold mine for hackers. And what exactly does the LRC mean by confidential disclosures? It seems such a vague category gives the government the right to deny almost any request for emails unless, perhaps, they address birthday greetings, candidate announcements and reassurances that dedicated lawmakers are working hard for the public.
It also is curious to see executive sessions on the list. While state law prohibits the public from attending these secret meetings, it does not prohibit officials from discussing what occurred at those meetings.
Sutton told the Journal it now will take some time to go through his emails and comply with the LRC's request, which also indicates a fair amount of this information is apparently being shared by our citizen-lawmakers. How much? Evidently, we're not entitled to know.
Sutton's dutiful compliance to the LRC's requests also raises questions about his ability to be a change-agent in the Republican-controlled state government. Meanwhile, two of the Republican candidates for governor — Rep. Kristi Noem and Attorney General Marty Jackley — offered little more than lip service when Tupper asked them if they might be willing to share their emails, too.
Jackley said he would release his emails if the Journal received written waivers of confidential privilege from those who exchanged emails with him, creating a barrier that is difficult if not impossible to overcome. He did say, however, that he supports legislation to make government emails public. It will be interesting to see if his office introduces legislation to that affect in 2018 session, which starts in January.
A Noem spokesman gave this response: “Kristi believes transparency in government is essential, and she understands many have concerns. As this debate progresses, she’ll be listening closely to South Dakotans, narrowing in on the best, publicly debated reforms to make sure the state government is genuinely more accountable to the people.”
To paraphrase, she will not release her emails anytime soon and certainly not before the 2018 gubernatorial election.
So while these gubernatorial candidates want to give taxpayers the impression they support an open and transparent state government, the reality is that too many doors remain closed to the public and the desire to open them appears to be lacking (disappointing).