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Column: YOU have the right to know

Posted: March 15, 2018 3:31 p.m.
Updated: March 16, 2018 1:00 a.m.

It’s Sunshine Week across the U.S., including right here in Kershaw County, S.C. This is the week the media -- newspapers, especially -- devote to reminding you, the public, that government information is yours to seek, not just ours in our professional lives as journalists.

You have the right to know how much taxpayer money is being spent on particular projects.

You have the right to know whether a public body is going into an executive, or closed-door, session to discuss something the S.C. Freedom of Information Act allows to be discussed in such sessions.

You have the right to access law enforcement incident reports from the last 14 days -- minus certain redactable information -- without having to tell them why or who you are.

 You have the right to government meeting minutes from the last six months.

You have the right to most (there may be some exemptions) documents anyone hands up to a public body as a whole, or any individual member of a public body during a public meeting.

You have the right to these and other government records for reasonable fees not to exceed the actual cost of the search, retrieval, and redaction of records .... (and) shall not exceed the prorated hourly salary of the lowest paid employee who ... has the necessary skill and training to perform the request.

(In other words, someone charging you $6 for a two-page record is overcharging you. Don’t back down.)

Here’s 10 things the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) says are “clearly public record,” which means you have the right to access them:

1. The names, sex, race, title, and dates of employment of all employees and officers of public bodies.

2. Administrative staff manuals and instruction to staff that affect a member of the public.

3. Final opinions, including concurring and dissenting opinions, as well as orders, made in the adjudication of cases.

4. Those statements of policy and interpretation of policy, statute, and the Constitution which have been adopted by the public body.

5. Written planning policies and goals and final planning decisions.

6. Information in or taken from any account, voucher, or contract dealing with the receipt or expenditure of public or other funds by public bodies.

7. (I already mentioned this, but) the minutes of all proceedings of all public bodies and all votes at such proceedings, with the exception of all such minutes and votes taken at meetings closed to the public (I’m actually of the opinion public bodies can’t take secret votes, but perhaps there’s an exemption I haven’t heard about).

8. (I also mentioned) reports which disclose the nature, substance, and location of any crime or alleged crime reported as having been committed. Where a report contains information exempt as otherwise provided by the law, the law enforcement agency may delte that information from the report. (This would also seem to go past the 14-day rule I mentioned earlier, but it’s what I stick with.)

9. With certain exemptions, the FOIA now includes law enforcement dash cam video. You have the right to see it.

10. Statistical and other emprical findings considered by the S.C. Legislative Audit Council in the development of an audit report.

As I said earlier, you also have the right to make sure that when public bodies go into executive session, they do so correctly.

For the umpteenth time, I’m going to explain this: Thanks to a court ruling, public bodies may not simply read out the section of the FOIA that applies to what they’re discussing.

For example, when a motion is made to enter executive session in order to discuss “employment matters, to include employment, appointment, compensation, promotion, demotion, discipline” or things like “retirement or resignations,” that motion is illegal and I’m going to begin calling it out if I hear it again.

According to the court ruling I mentioned, in this specific example, the motion should read:

“I make a motion that we enter executive session to discuss possible disciplinary action against Employee A” and include a general description of their job -- i.e., member of the police department or induction contract teacher or whatever.

And if there’s more than one employee being talked about, make them separate parts of the motion in the same way.

This in no way unduly invades the employee’s right to privacy, but makes sure that you, the public, know exactly why a public body is going behind closed doors.

The same can be done for contracts and other exempted matters. Be specific enough to be meaningful without divulging things you shouldn’t.

Again, Sunshine Week is your week because you have the right to know.

I'm just making sure you get that information.


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