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Working for freedom of information

Posted: July 13, 2017 1:26 p.m.
Updated: July 14, 2017 1:00 a.m.

During my 17 years with this newspaper, I have championed South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act (S.C. FOIA) and the cause of open government. I have done this not just because my job depends on the freedom of information, but because having access to government information is crucial for every single man, woman and child in the state.

Without freedom of information and an open government, we -- as voters, taxpayers and citizens -- cannot know whether our elected and appointed officials are spending our money wisely, or working in their own self-interests rather than their constituents, or are conducting business in secret without giving the public a chance to voice their concerns.

Those of you who have read my columns know I am passionate about all this. That’s why I was happily surprised and humbled to learn that I have been named to the S.C. Press Association’s (SCPA) Freedom of Information (FOI) Committee for 2017-2018.

The committee only meets annually -- this year on Sept. 14 -- but then works for the next 12 months, according to the SCPA, on the following tasks and responsibilities:

• Dealing with open government issues and initiatives.

• Setting long-term FOI objectives and priorities.

• Determining positions on particular bills, if needed.

• Advising the SCPA’s professional staff on how particular FOI issues and bills will affect the (news) industry.

• Assisting in direct lobbying contact as set out by the committee, its chairman or the SCPA’s executive director.

• Assisting in administering the SCPA’s FOI Fund assistance through its chairperson.

What kinds of things does the committee focus on? Let’s go back to March 2015 when we published a Sunshine Week guest column by former SCPA FOI Committee Chair (and retired executive editor of The Sun News in Myrtle Beach) Trish O’Connor.

Then, O’Connor used the Hillary Clinton email controversy to highlight something going on right here in South Carolina: “shadow government.” By that, O’Connor meant conducting what’s supposed to be public business through private emails, texts or social media accounts. She suggested, and I agree, that “electronic communication of public business should be stored and made available to the public similarly to printed communication.”

Back in 2015, the S.C. FOIA included the phrase “regardless of physical form or characteristics” when talking about how public bodies are required to turn over all public records in their possession.

In May, I devoted my column to celebrating -- with caveats -- amendments passed this year that make the S.C. FOIA better. The amended FOIA states that public bodies are not required to create electronic versions of records where they don’t already exist. At the same time, the full FOIA applies to all records, including electronic ones. I urged our public bodies here in Kershaw County to continue, if they hadn’t already, digitizing existing records and to create new ones as they go forward.

Another thing the committee does is try to educate public officials on how to work within the FOIA.

In 2011, the committee set a goal of getting a copy of the “Public Officials Guide to the FOIA” to every public official in South Carolina. By this time that year, SCPA members, including myself, had ordered more than 5,500 copies of the guide to give out to local officials. The guide was updated in 2015 and updated again Wednesday to reflect this year’s amendments. The new version includes a short letter from S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, who signed the amended FOIA into law; an introduction from current SCPA FOI Chair Richard Whiting, who is the executive editor of the Index-Journal in Greenwood; and a memo from S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.

I immediately downloaded the guide and am in the process of sending copies to public officials, from councils to law enforcement. You can download it for yourself.

There’s also a two-page Citizen’s Guide to the FOIA.

I have always said that the S.C. FOIA isn’t exclusively for journalists. It’s really for you -- every man, woman and child in South Carolina.

So is, in its way, the SC FOI Committee of which I will be a part starting in September. In fact, when asked to join the committee, I was also asked to think of some citizen advocates to invite to the Sept. 14 meeting. I’m still thinking about that, but if you have any ideas (or want to nominate yourself), just email me at the address below.

Whether it’s to make sure our public bodies are acting properly or simply making sure you get the information you need to be an informed citizen, we’ll be working for you.

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