The Fort Pierre City Council should not have entered into a secret settlement agreement.
On Monday, in a 5-1 vote, the council agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by Perkins' owner Diane London in 2015. Exactly how much the City of Fort Pierre's citizens could be on the hook for is completely unknown. The city council, as part of the settlement, agreed to keep its details secret.
How can a public entity agree to shell out taxpayers' dollars without telling the very people from whom that money was collected how much of their blood, sweat and tears — because we cannot forget that that is what tax dollars represent — are being used to end a lawsuit originally brought because city leaders may or may not have followed the city's own rules regarding the development of the Teton Island district?
The answer is actually pretty simple. South Dakota's laws are, at best, abysmal when it comes to telling people what their own governments are doing. South Dakota continually ranks in the bottom five of the 50 states when it comes to openness in government. To be clear, South Dakota is not an open-government state.
That fact is surprising given the majority of our political leaders' repeated calls for a more limited government and their stated commitment to spending the smallest amount of taxpayer dollars possible. The people of this state, too, by and large, tend to believe in a limited, spend-thrift government.
One would be forgiven for assuming that a commitment to limited-government principles would extend to such things as not spending taxpayer dollars without telling the taxpayers how much is being spent. In South Dakota, at least, it doesn't. There have been many attempts to fix loopholes in state law that allow city governments to conceal information such as how much they have to shell out for legal settlements. All of them have failed.
That brings us back to the situation in Fort Pierre. Rob Anderson, the lawyer to whom Fort Pierre Mayor Gloria Hanson said all questions about the settlement should be directed, told a Capital Journal reporter on Tuesday that he cannot even say whether the city had to pay anything at all or if there's an insurance policy that would help defray costs, if there were any.
Confidential settlements on behalf of government entities aren't unique to South Dakota. Local and state governments all over the country have tried repeatedly to conceal details of legal settlements from their citizens. Sometimes, it's done to protect juvenile victims of wrongdoing, and that's understandable.
But other times, it's done to prevent the embarrassment of public officials or to protect the person who filed the lawsuit and has received taxpayer dollars as a result of the settlement. Neither of those situations are acceptable reasons to keep information, especially financial information, from taxpayers.
Out of court settlements serve a good purpose. They can cut the costs of litigation, saving everyone some money in the process. For private businesses, that's a great thing. But when it comes to government, which by definition deals in public monies, secret settlements should be the exception, not the rule.
The state should have clear laws forbidding secret legal settlements for all levels of government. There should be few exceptions to the prohibition of secrecy and every elected, appointed or hired official should know the consequences for circumventing those rules.
South Dakota has none of that right now. What we do have is vague statutory language surrounding contracts and legal settlements as they apply to governments. The Supreme Court even now is deciding whether some of the state laws permitting secret settlements apply to city governments when they're the ones receiving money from such an agreement.
The Fort Pierre City Council may not have violated a state law by entering into a secret settlement agreement. They may have been acting in good faith when they did so, hoping to save a little taxpayer money by ending a costly lawsuit early. But the councilors owe their constituents more than that.
The council owes the people of Fort Pierre good government, and good government can't be conducted in secret. The council also owes their constituents the chance for a full accounting of what may or may not have gone wrong at the Teton Island development. That can't be done now because some of the details are being kept secret.
While a secret settlement may be legal for governments to enter into right, they are almost never the right thing to do. Every citizen of Fort Pierre should demand that the city council make its portion of this settlement public.
This editorial appeared in the May 3 edition of the Capital Journal of Pierre, South Dakota.