SGA impeachment not a jury trial


Editorial Board

The Issue:

Under South Dakota law, government bodies are allowed to go into executive session to discuss and make some specific decisions.

The Stance:

The public’s business should be conducted in the public; open government is good for everyone.

On Nov. 12, the University of South Dakota’s Student Government Association decided to remove its president from office. After a public trial where the senate voted 16-1 that Terry Liggins had violated SGA’s constitution, SGA voted to go into executive session to deliberate on whether or not he should be allowed to stay in office. Since then, Justin Wolfgang, editor-in-chief of The Volante, USD’s student newspaper, has filed an open meetings complaint against SGA with the Clay County state’s attorney. He says the group violated South Dakota open meetings law by not making individual votes cast in executive session public.

The open meetings law allows governing bodies of public agencies-student groups like SGA or SDSU’s Students’ Association, school boards and city councils-to go into executive session to discuss “employee or student performance, legal matters, employee contract negotiations or pricing strategies by publicly-owned competitive businesses.” However, the law also states that any official action taken based on these discussions-like taking a vote-must be made at an open public meeting, not in executive session. If the courts agree with The Volante, members of SGA could face a public reprimand by a state board or be charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor, which is punishable by 30 days in jail and/or a $200 fine.

It is possible that SGA wanted to run Liggins’ impeachment trial like a criminal trial, with public arguments and a closed jury deliberation, but there is a distinct difference in the two trials. In a criminal trial, citizens are compelled by the government to serve on juries and decide guilt or innocence; in Liggins’ trial, the jury was made up of SGA members who chose to run for election and therefore do not deserve anonymity.

Open government protects both the general public and members of the governing body. People elect others to serve on these bodies, and they have the right to know how these officials use the power given to them. The people have to be able to hold their government accountable, and executive sessions give officials the ability to withhold information from their constituents. Yes, the law requires bodies only use executive sessions in specific instances, but no one really knows what goes on in those meetings. Open meetings can protect these government officials, too. No one can accuse them of using executive sessions for illegal purposes if all discussion is conducted in public meetings.

Open government is the foundation of the American dream. We have a democracy because our predecessors wanted to know what their government was up to and wanted to be able to hold those in power accountable. Executive session should be used only in rare circumstances, not anytime a discussion meets the established requirements. The open meetings law is clear in stating that at no time is a body required to go into executive session; the choice to leave the people in the dark is up to elected officials. The Collegian hopes that local governing bodies make a decision that is good for everyone and keeps all business in the public.