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Time to spread some Sunshine again

Posted: March 14, 2014 9:19 a.m.
Updated: March 17, 2014 5:00 a.m.

“Open government is neither a Democratic or Republican issue. It is an American value that we all must uphold.” --Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), March 11, 2014, chairing this year’s annual Judiciary Committee hearing on government transparency.

As the editor of a three times a week community newspaper, I -- obviously -- agree with Sen. Leahy’s statement. It is an especially notable one since he uttered it just days before Sunday’s kick off of Sunshine Week 2014 across the country.

I saw Leahy’s statement as a Tweet on the official Sunshine Week website, accompanied by a rather unfortunate picture: of the 17 seats for senators in the hearing chamber, only five were filled. Even the number of people sitting in attendance seemed a bit low to me.

Sure, senators and other Washington, D.C., movers and shakers are a busy bunch. Open government and the freedom of information, however, are among the most important foundations our government and, therefore, this country stand upon. Although it took 87 years after America’s declaration of independence to be uttered by President Abraham Lincoln -- as part of his last words during the Gettysburg Address -- but the basic principal is this: ours is a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

That means the government not just works for us, it is ours. We own it. Whatever it does, it is supposed to do at our bidding and -- with certain and, hopefully, reasonable, exceptions -- report on its actions. If our representatives (whether in Congress, the State House or city and county councils) make a policy/law, spends money or enters into a contract with someone, not only do we need to know about, we must know about it -- by law.

As I said, there are exceptions. Those exceptions are mostly in terms of when the information is disclosed rather than if it is ever disclosed.

Contract negotiations, for example, can be conducted in executive, closed-door sessions. However, a public body must not only vote on a contract publically, it must disclose the name of whomever it is contracting with and for what price and purpose as part of the voting process.

There are actually two Freedom of Information acts (FOIA) South Carolinians need to be aware of: the U.S. FOIA and S.C. FOIA. The distinction is important. If you want a piece of information from the federal government, you’d better cite the U.S. FOIA. Enacted on July 4, 1966, it’s been amended several times, most notably in 1996 when legislation added in language covering electronic data and documents.

Want something from the S.C. State House, the S.C. Law Enforcement Division, Kershaw County Government Center or Camden Police Department (among others)? Be ready to learn about the S.C. FOIA, which was enacted in 1976 and amended several times since.

The S.C. FOIA is one of the most enabling forms of FOIA legislation in the country. Out-of-state peers are constantly amazed at how much information is freely available in South Carolina thanks to the law. There are a few tweaks I’d love to make, but for the most part, it’s fantastic. You can thank the folks at the S.C. Press Association (SCPA) who were involved from the beginning.

Although it was written by journalists and legislators, the S.C. FOIA really benefits the public. You have the right to request records. You have the right to demand that city or county council specifically state why they are entering executive sessions. You have the right to know how your money is being spent.

As a part of the journalism community, the C-I does many of these things for you (e.g., our weekly crime reports). Newspapers like ours do this because it’s part of our job and because not every citizen has the time to deal with government agencies.

However, learning more about the S.C. FOIA is easy. The SCPA created a PDF a few years ago called “A Citizen’s Guide to South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act”. It’s only two pages long, but contains everything you need to know in plain English.

In addition, the SCPA has long had another guide, the “Public Official’s Guide to Compliance with South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act”. This 20-page document is more detailed, weaving back and forth between a layman’s language explanation of the actual FOIA verbiage. Running for office this year? I highly recommend you download and read it so you’ll know what to do in front of the public once you’re elected.

This Saturday, Localife Editor Haley Atkinson and I will be attending the SCPA annual meeting in Columbia. There’s at least one FOIA/open government session we plan to attend. Both of us are always willing to learn more about how to bring our readers more of the information they deserve to have.

It’s part of the C-I’s commitment to be your eyes and ears in Kershaw County, and it’s a commitment we take seriously. That’s why, on a fairly regular basis, we cite the S.C. FOIA when we think public bodies aren’t being forthcoming. That why, as I have for years, continue to call for each and every public body to specifically state why they’re entering executive session and not just slide by with a simple “personnel matter” (see the bottom of page 13 of the public official’s guide).

Look, all we’re trying to do is spread Sunshine all over the place. There are few, legitimate, reasons to be kept in the dark.


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