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FOIA

Posted: August 31, 2017 8:07 a.m.
Updated: September 1, 2017 1:00 a.m.

Occasionally, readers might see us admonishing a public official or public body about an issue that we believe falls under the purview of the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. They may even wonder why the reporter or the newspaper is “making a big deal” out of what may seem like a small detail.

Recently, a reporter for the South Strand News (SSN), a newspaper that covers, among other things, Surfside Beach municipal government, was thrown out of a government meeting. The meeting, one of three scheduled for the day, was held in an upstairs room at the town’s fire department. SSN reporter Anita Crone arrived for the 2 p.m. meeting and was told the meeting was closed to the public. She then announced that the meeting was in violation of the state’s open meeting laws, and she would be staying. She was then told to leave by a police officer.

The town will likely argue that since there was no quorum of voting members of council, there was no way a vote could be taken, therefore the meeting was not subject to FOIA and would not need to be open to the public. But the intention of those meetings, according to the SSN’s story, was to allow town council members a chance to review repair options for the Surfside Pier -- a project that will clearly be paid for with public funds -- prior to their discussing and possibly voting on them in an open session of council. In effect, this would be an informal presentation and discussion of how to spend tax dollars, even if they intended to make no decisions. 

Whether the council was technically in violation of FOIA is now a question for the court. But to us, it all comes down to the issue of transparency. Do it in public and you’re fine. Do it behind closed doors and you’ve obviously got something to hide. Leaving the public out of the loop, especially when it comes to potential money matters, can only send a bad message. At the very least, the perception is that the council has little regard for public opinion and even less regard for the average citizen’s intelligence. At the very worst, it looks like yet another free-for-all at the public trough.

Moments like these illustrate why we in the press are so dogmatic about FOIA. To be fair, around here any FOIA misunderstandings occur because of ignorance, rather than deliberate disregard of the law and disrespect of the public by government officials. Indeed, Kershaw County is fortunate that those in public office make the effort to comply with FOIA, not only because it’s the law but because it’s the right thing to do.

But if you ever wondered why we sometimes “make a big deal over a little matter,” this incident in Surfside Beach should answer your question.

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