South Dakota Legislators Consider Bill on Confidential Settlements

By JAMES NORD | February 9, 2017

A bill that would roll back a provision in the state’s public records law that Sioux Falls, S.D., used to keep secret the details of a settlement over faulty siding at the Denny Sanford Premier Center is scheduled to be considered Wednesday.

Supporters argue the measure would improve transparency across South Dakota by barring the state and local governments from entering into confidential settlements without a court order. Sioux Falls in 2015 announced it would be reimbursed $1 million under the settlement with contractors over the bulging panels but didn’t provide details, citing in part a confidentiality agreement.

Republican Rep. Greg Jamison, the bill’s main sponsor, said he watched what happened with the settlement as a Sioux Falls city councilor and thought it didn’t seem right. It spurred a lot of speculation about what was really happening and created a perception of wrongdoing when there might not have been any, he said.

“I saw the problems it created in our community, and coming to Pierre – this is my chance to change it,” Jamison said. “Good, bad or ugly, the public has a right to know.”

Argus Leader Media sued after the city declined to give access to documents related to the settlement. A lower court sided with the city, and the newspaper appealed. Arguments before the state Supreme Court were held in January. It’s unclear when the court will issue a ruling.

A spokeswoman for Sioux Falls said in an email that the city wouldn’t comment on the bill because it may impact pending litigation before the high court.

Jamison said his measure is intended to add trust and accountability to government. It’s set to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee.

Dave Bordewyk, general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, said taxpayers should always have an understanding of where their money is going. He said that such settlements “fly in the face of good government and transparency.”

The South Dakota Municipal League opposes the bill. Executive director Yvonne Taylor said that not being able to offer confidentiality can force municipalities to go to trial, which costs the taxpayers money.

“If we can settle these things, we’d rather do that and not go forward with a full trial,” Taylor said.

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