By Richard Whiting
Have you participated in elections that put school board members, city and county council members or state lawmakers in office?
Do you pay state and local taxes and, in return, receive services?
Do you know how these elected and appointed officials, who work for you, are spending your tax dollars?
Do you know why the public school superintendent or your child’s teacher was suddenly terminated?
Do you know why a city or county employee high up on the organizational chart was escorted off the job?
Do you know who elected officials are or were considering for the post as town manager, head of economic development or some other role?
Do you know how much public employees are paid?
That’s a lot of questions to digest, but they and others are important. More than that, the answers belong to you. Yes, you.
That’s why the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act exists and it’s why this week, March 13-19, newspapers highlight Sunshine Week.
Our state’s Freedom of Information Act, while imperfect, is a law designed to hold elected and appointed officials and bodies accountable to their bosses. That’s you, the public. It is designed to shine light on business that can be carried out in darkness, out of the public’s sight. And sadly, too many in positions of power are more than glad to operate in the dark.
That city or county manager’s contract? Yep, you are entitled to its details, to include all perks and benefits.
Those email exchanges among public officials pertaining to the dismissal of a public employee? Yep, you’re entitled to see those, with few limitations.
How much are your appointed officials being paid? If they earn $50,000 or more per year, it’s public record.
Why was your daughter’s teacher fired? Again, the personnel file is public record.
How much did the council spend during a retreat at the coast, and on what? Yep, you’re entitled to know that as well.
The South Carolina Press Association has for years provided a citizen’s guide to compliance with the state’s Freedom of Information Act, available on the organization’s website: scpress.org/citizen/index.html
We urge you to visit the online guide, bookmark it and, more important, use it because the Freedom of Information Act was written for you, the public. It’s not a law that exists for the media. Granted, the media more often than not use FOIA as a means of accessing public information. There’s an expectation among the public that we, especially newspapers, will operate as government watchdogs — a role we gladly accept and take on. We do it for you, but we are not the sole beneficiaries of FOIA’s provisions.
We can help you too. Media outlets — and again, especially community newspapers — are often asked about what information is and is not in the public domain, and we frequently receive news tips to investigate situations when someone suspects that not all is on the up and up.
As we have said before, FOIA is your vehicle to drive public bodies into the sunshine, hold them accountable and make them work in a transparent environment. So please, use it.
Richard S. Whiting is executive editor of the Index-Journal in Greenwood. He also serves as the S.C. Press Association’s Vice President, Dailies, and FOI Chair. The Press Association is an advocate for open government in South Carolina.