SELBY, S.D. (AP) — A South Dakota county auditor accused of failing to make documents available for a public meeting was arrested and charged with violating the state’s open meetings law, in a rare move seen as extreme by some media and open-government experts.
Walworth County State’s Attorney James Hare issued an arrest warrant last week for the county’s auditor, Rebecca Krein, after he received a complaint about materials that weren’t made available for an Aug. 6 meeting but should have been.
Krein is charged with a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of 30 days in jail. She declined to comment when reached by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, citing advice from her lawyer.
By law, South Dakota government entities have to make documents available to the public when they are used during official meetings.
Hare did not return a call Friday from The Associated Press. He told the Argus Leader the county had a chronic problem of failing to follow public meeting and record laws, which he said had created mistrust among some residents.
“You don’t want the people coming into meetings with pitchforks and torches creating havoc,” Hare said. “Give the people what they want.”
David Bordewyk, the executive director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, told the Argus Leader that it’s likely the first time a public official has been arrested in the state for violating open meeting laws, which were drafted in 1965.
Jane Kirtley, who teaches media ethics and media law at the University of Minnesota and was a longtime director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said arrests are “very, very rarely used” in cases where public officials don’t comply with open-records laws. She also said they’re unlikely to be effective.
“I’ve never been sold on the idea that this is a great way to terrorize government officials into following the law,” she said.
Sandy Davidson, an attorney who taught communications law at the University of Missouri, said few states even allow criminal charges in such cases and called the prospect “more theoretical than real.” She said the charges amount to “an extreme form of public shaming.”
Hare’s move sparked criticism from Katie Zerr, news editor of the county’s Mobridge Tribune. She wrote in an editorial that she has had run-ins with the auditor’s office, but she questioned the arrest, saying it seemed to be “more like teaching her a lesson rather than a need to protect the public.”
“I am inclined to view this arrest as a mistake on all levels,” she wrote.