Open meetings panel issues two reprimands


Two public reprimands for violation of the state’s open meetings laws were issued by the South Dakota Open Meetings Commission in Sioux Falls Friday.

The commission agreed that the Freeman public school board failed to properly post a meeting agenda to its website in July. Commissioners also agreed that the board of supervisors for Lincoln Township in Lincoln County failed to post a meeting agenda at least 24 hours in advance of a March 4 meeting.

In the same complaint against the Freeman public school, commissioners voted 3-2 in finding the school did not violate the law in terms of how the school posted the July 14 board meeting agenda inside the school building.

Commissioners also found no violation of open meetings laws earlier this year by the Plankinton school board in a complaint brought by John Paul Studeny Jr. of Plankinton.

The Open Meetings Commission, comprised of five states attorneys from across South Dakota, have heard more than 40 cases involving complaints about violations of the open meetings laws since it was formed in 2004.

If the commission determines a violation of the law has occurred, the only penalty it can impose is a public reprimand.

Cases heard by the commission are forwarded to it by states attorneys, who field complaints about alleged violations brought by citizens.

The complaint against the Freeman school board was brought by Chris Eisenbeis, a Freeman resident. He charged the school failed to properly post a meeting agenda to the school website as well as at the school building.

State law requires that public boards must post a meeting agenda in a place accessible to the public for at least 24 hours prior to a regularly scheduled meeting. The agenda must also be posted to the public board’s website if the entity has a website.

The Freeman school attorney did not dispute that it failed to post the agenda to the website. However, the school’s attorney contested the charge that it failed to post the agenda at least 24 hours prior in the school building.

Eisenbeis said the agenda in the building was not publicly available for an entire 24 hours prior to the meeting because it was posted in a place where it could not be viewed after normal business hours.

The commission has dealt with similar complaints in the past. As a result, the Legislature in 2012 amended the agenda-posting law to try to clarify that agendas must be available to the public for an entire 24 hours prior to a meeting.

Still, commissioners were not in agreement that the law is clear enough.

“There is ambiguity here,” said commissioner Mark Reedstrom, Grant County state’s attorney, in referring to the 2012 amended statute.

Commission Chairman John Steele of Aurora County disagreed. “I don’t really think the statute is that ambiguous. I don’t think you can post for a few hours here and a few hours there and count them up to 24 hours. Notice should be been posted on the front door or somewhere in the vicinity so anyone could see it promptly.”

After the hearing, Eisenbeis of Freeman said he was disappointed with the commission’s split decision. “They definitely sent a mixed message,” he said.

In his complaint against the Plankinton school board, Studeny alleged that board members met illegally in May when the school’s school superintendent was fired. He said the board took an informal vote to fire the superintendent through a series of phone calls without calling a special meeting.

Rodney Freeman, attorney for the Plankinton school, said the board did not vote by phone and that the board chairman was simply informing fellow board members that he was immediately suspending the superintendent under authority permitted to him in state law.

The complaint against the Lincoln Township Board was brought by Paul Tuntland of Brookings. Tuntland farms family-owned land in the township.

The attorney for the township board said the board was not fully aware of the law requiring the posting of meeting agendas 24 hours prior. “There’s nothing evil. There is nothing conspiratorial. They did the best they could, said Sioux Falls attorney Douglas Deibert.

In other business, the commission elected Sully County State’s Attorney Emily Sovell to be the panel’s chairwoman for the coming year.

More information about the commission can be found at the South Dakota attorney general’s website.