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C-I wins coveted SCPA Montgomery FOI Award

Posted: March 23, 2014 4:09 p.m.
Updated: March 24, 2014 5:00 a.m.

For the first time in its history, the Chronicle-Independent won the S.C. Press Association’s (SCPA) Reid H. Montgomery Freedom of Information Award. The SCPA presented the award -- one of its most prestigious -- to C-I Editor Martin L. Cahn and Localife Editor Haley Atkinson during the association’s annual meeting Saturday in Columbia.

The C-I’s entry included articles, editorials and columns covering two topics. In both cases, officials took actions the C-I felt were not in keeping with the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The first series of articles covered actions taken by Bethune Town Council during 2013 resulting in the disbanding of its police department and, several months later, the hiring of the former mayor’s son as its new police chief. As the C-I explained to judges in a cover letter, many Bethune residents said they did not know either of the decisions had been made until reading about them in the newspaper. Cahn and Atkinson -- who served as the C-I’s county reporter at the time -- wrote stories and columns included in this part of the entry.

“As I said in an October column, one of the things we tried to find out was whether the council’s hiring of the mayor’s son violated not so much the FOIA, but the state’s ethics laws,” Cahn said. “The former mayor did recuse himself from the vote -- which was then left to only two of the council’s five members -- but not from the discussion about it. We never said there was wrong-doing, only that we were trying to find out if there was a violation.”

The second series of articles focused on the KershawHealth Board of Trustee’s search for an interim chief executive officer. Cahn wrote the series of articles; the C-I also published an editorial explaining the paper’s actions and their importance to the public.

In its November editorial, the C-I pointed out that S.C. FOIA experts said parts of the interim CEO search were “inappropriate and possibly illegal.” A lot of the reporting focused on the definition of “finalists” for the position and when a public body must reveal who are its final candidates.

“In the end, trustees did the right thing and revealed the names of the candidates it was interviewing so that the public could have an idea of who they were considering,” Cahn said.

SCPA Attorney Jay Bender presented the award to the C-I along with SCPA President Jack Osteen and the organization’s executive director, Bill Rogers.

“The General Assembly got it right in 1974 when it made findings to enact the first version of the (S.C. FOIA). The general assembly finds that in a democratic society, that public business be conducted in an open and public manner,” Bender said. “Unfortunately … a number of public entities throughout the state of South Carolina have failed, in spite of the best efforts of the press association and its member newspapers to educate over the years that public business is to be conducted in an open and public manner.

“Our winner this year is a paper that insisted that government in its county be conducted openly,” Bender continued. “The Chronicle-Independent in Camden would not accept that (public bodies would not act openly) -- it pushed and pushed.”

The Montgomery Award is presented only if judges believe a meritorious entry has been submitted. Only two awards are presented -- one to a daily newspaper and one to a non-daily newspaper -- each year. According to the SCPA, criteria for the award include “articles, editorials and supporting materials that demonstrate how the newspaper exercised unusual diligence and/or courage in furthering access to public information, as defined by the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.”

Consideration is given to any possible legal precedents set and other actions taken to further the cause of freedom of information in South Carolina. Those actions can include, but are not limited to court actions, correspondence with government officials and participation in freedom of information committees.

In addition to the Montgomery Award, West Wateree Chronicle Editor Tenell Felder won third place for Column Writing, while Cahn won an honorable mention in the same category. Cahn also won third place in the Reporting-in-Depth category for his article “Who owns KershawHealth?” examining who actually may control the healthcare organization in terms of selling or leasing its facilities. Former staff reporter Miciah Bennett also won third place in the General News Photo category for a photograph she took in September of Camden High School student Morgan Davis trying out a drinking/texting while driving simulator.

The C-I received all these awards in the SCPA’s two-to-three times weekly publication division.

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