South Dakota, New Mexico governments get more open

Open government is gaining ground in two states – South Dakota and New Mexico. South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard has announced the creation of a new open government task force in his state. In New Mexico a court has ruled that citizens should have access to contractors records.

In an announcement made yesterday with Attorney General Marty Jackley, Governor Daugaard said that he was creating the task force to ensure that open records and open meetings laws in the state provided maximum access to government. “The workings of government should be as transparent as practicable,” Daugaard said. “Unless there is a compelling reason otherwise, I believe government information should be open and easily accessible.”

The task force includes members of the legislature as well as law enforcement, administration representatives and members of the media. The first meeting will be at the end of this month and at the end of its study period, the group will provide recommendations on how to improve access to government meetings and records. The Governor said that new legislation may also arise out of this work and that he would be open to that.

In New Mexico, the State Court of Appeals has ruled that citizens have a right to access public records kept by an independent contractor on behalf of state or local governments. The ruling follows a challenge to the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, open government advocates said that cities shouldn’t be able to avoid being transparent by contracting out work to private sector companies who do not have to disclose their activities.

The suit involved the aptly named city of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico which used a private contractor to record city commission meetings. An earlier judge had ruled that because the videos were made by a private company they were not public records despite being the only recordings of commission meetings. That decision was appealed by a local non-profit and the Court of Appeals overturned the original ruling to declare the videos public records and subject to disclosure rules.

The case has provided critical guidance on what constitutes public records under the Act, which before had only been broadly defined to mean materials held “on behalf of any public body.” Because the appeal was made at the state court level, the guidance will now apply to all public bodies in New Mexico. The full text of the ruling is available here.