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Ready to be your voice

Posted: January 4, 2018 10:32 a.m.
Updated: January 5, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Last September, I was supposed to attend my first-ever meeting of the S.C. Press Association’s Freedom of Information (FOI) Committee. Unfortunately, the effects of a certain hurricane required us to postpone that meeting. It’s been rescheduled for next Friday (Jan. 12), one week from today.

The committee deals with open government issues and initiatives; sets long-term FOI objectives and priorities; determines positions on particular bills, if needed; advises the association’s professional staff on how particular FOI issues and bills will affect the industry; assists in direct lobbying contact as set out by the committee, its chairman or the association’s executive director; and assists in administering the FOI Fund.

During the past year, I’ve commented on a number of FOI issues. For example, in September, I noted that a Columbia law firm had shared a report with the S.C. School Board Association on FOI Act changes enacted last year -- how to understand them and the “remedies” available to school boards across our state.

I mentioned that the report was good, but didn’t go far enough. I wanted it to include real world examples of how school boards (and other public bodies) can stay within the bounds of the Act.

I also mentioned that the 2017 amendments did not change the requirements for going into executive, or closed-door, sessions. In fact, the Act’s requirements were upheld in a Newberry court case last year: Don’t just cite the applicable section of the Act; be as specific as possible about what is going to be discussed. I’ve given examples twice before, I’m not going to do it again.

Suffice it to say, one of the things I plan to bring up at next week’s meeting is a need to not only continue educating public bodies on this and other points, but perhaps to expand that education to the public bodies’ lawyers, non-elected administrators and organizations (i.e., school board association, Municipal Association of South Carolina, South Carolina Association of Counties, etc.).

Why?

Because they’re the ones telling the school board, city council or county council that it’s OK to do certain things when, actually, they’re not. In Kershaw County’s case, I doubt it’s out of any malice -- I think all of these advisors mean well -- but out of a mission to protect their clients, bosses or members’ interests rather than the public’s.

The Act (here's a PDF of the public official's guide) wasn’t written to solely protect the interests of either public bodies or the public; it’s meant to provide a balance with, perhaps (at least from my point of view) a bit of leaning more toward the public’s interest over the officials’.

Last July, I wrote that the FOI Act not only helps me with my job, but ensures access to government information for every single man, woman and child in the state.

“Without freedom of information and an open government,” I wrote, “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.”

I see my appointment to the FOI Committee as my chance to be your voice -- along with my fellow journalists -- in shaping the direction South Carolina takes on open government issues.

Do you have a specific open government concern, whether on the local or state level? Is there something you’ve seen, heard of, or read (in our paper, I hope) that has you scratching your head as to whether or not it’s a FOI Act violation? Is there more change to open government policies you’d like to see here in South Carolina?

Before you answer those and any other questions you can think of, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not on a witch hunt and, therefore, am not interested in conspiracy theories. This isn’t a chance for you to go off about an individual elected or appointed official or even a particular public body.

This isn’t about personal beefs or party politics. It’s not about whether you think you’re being taxed fairly or believe certain elected officials are just out to spend, spend, spend.

What I’m looking for are serious ideas to take to the committee so I can say, “Hey, some folks in my county are talking about this” (whatever FOI issue “this” is) “and I’m wondering what we can do about it.”

My email address appears above, and you can reach me through my personal Facebook page. There’s a week to go before I head to Columbia for the meeting, so, if you have thoughtful questions, concerns, etc., let me know.

Since coming to the C-I nearly 18 years ago, I’ve considered my mission two-fold: to tell the stories of Kershaw County and to champion open government policies and practices because of their benefit to you, the public.

Freedom of information is a cornerstone of our system of government, of our very society. I’m more than happy to be your voice when it comes to ensuring that freedom is protected.

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