By Bill Rogers
Executive Director South Carolina Press Association
It’s Sunshine Week, a week to promote open government. Since you are reading an editorial column in this newspaper, you likely care about what is going on in your community and with your government. This is a good thing and unfortunately not common enough.
Let me encourage you to also care about open, transparent government on the local and state levels.
Without open government, you don’t know how your tax dollars are spent, how your public bodies make decisions, or if our laws are being enforced efficiently and with equality.
The Freedom of Information Act in South Carolina is a good one. Sure, it has a few flaws, but generally it does a good job of guaranteeing you access to the meetings of public bodies and to their records.
People often think our FOIA is just for nosy journalists. Well, that isn’t the case. Under the law, citizens have the same rights of access as the press.
“The General Assembly finds that it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in the formulation of public policy.”
That is the purpose our lawmakers wrote as an introduction to the Freedom of Information Act in 1976. That premise hasn’t changed, but some public officials are failing to follow its spirit.
It has been a disturbing year for open government. It was reported that our governor was not preserving public emails and conducting state business through private, secret emails. Our Highway Commission was holding meetings people couldn’t attend. A coastal chamber of commerce refused to account for how it spent $15 million in public money. A major university was withholding leadership evaluations and audits. Our Highway Patrol was routinely withholding reports and video tapes of its cases. A Sumter coroner was refusing to release an autopsy report of a police shooting. A school district in the Midlands wanted $500,000 to release copies of its public emails.
I think people only care about open government when it affects them directly… when they can’t get a copy of a document they want or they are asked to leave a meeting they have an interest in.
The only way this secrecy will end is for ordinary citizens to demand it. This happened with the introduction of a bill in the House of Representatives limiting copying costs, setting a specific time allowed to produce a document and prohibiting charging for searching for and compiling documents. This bill was citizen-driven, and citizens turned up in good numbers to testify about the abuse and problems they have faced in dealing with school boards and other public bodies.
The bill is awaiting debate on the House floor.
To help you understand your rights under the FOIA, the S.C. Press Association has developed a citizen’s guide. You can get a copy of this easy to understand two-page document by visiting scpress.org/citizen.
Please get a copy and read it. Then stand up for your rights.
Rogers is executive director of the S.C. Press Association, and an advocate for open government.