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Monday, March 23, 2009

Pierre City Commission Prefers Closed Government

KELO notes a story that the venerable Mr. Powers highlighted last week: the Pierre City Commission is keeping secret the names of people who have applied to fill a vacancy on that board. The commission's excuse: filling a commission vacancy is a "personnel issue."

Mr. Powers decries this thin excuse for shutting out citizens from public decisions, as do I. However, I note that we've had precedent for such closed-door actions here in Lake County. Last year's candidate search for the empty seat on the Madison Central School Board drew five applicants: the district did conduct public interviews of the two finalists, but it never made public the names of the other three candidates who sought consideration (I was one; I still haven't learned the other two). Last fall, the Lake County Commission filled a vacancy with a lightning appointment of the fourth-place finisher in the preceding Republican primary, skipping the public application process in conducted on two previous occasions.

Even my own public office, my seat on the Lake Herman Sanitary District, was filled in without any public discussion. Of course, when Keith Roskens and Larry Dirks appointed me to the seat Roskens was vacating in 2006, the action was cloaked less in secrecy than in apathy—in 30 years, we're never fielded a contested slate of candidates, and for four of the last five years, we've operated with an empty third seat. (What, no one wants to get together a couple times a year to talk about septic tanks?)

If government action pertaining to people holding elected office were just "personnel issues," then the State Senate's hearings against Senator Dan Sutton in 2007 should have been private.

The folks applying for the vacancy on the Pierre city commission understand they're not just applying for a job. They're seeking the privilege of speaking for their fellow citizens. The public deserves to know the names of those applicants and hear every bit of the discussion commissioners have in choosing the next commissioner.

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