It’s Sunshine Week in South Carolina
By Bill Rogers
It’s Sunshine Week in South Carolina and the nation.
You may not know there are problems with transparency in government in our state, but there are, despite our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The preface to the FOIA says it clearly: “…it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity…”
Here are some stories during the past year where reporters used the FOIA and good reporting to bring about change in their communities and state:
In Aiken, the newspaper filed FOI requests for city council emails concerning a painfully slow and mismanaged recovery effort after a massive ice storm. The newspaper held city officials accountable and it led to the firing of the city manager.
In Bennettsville, open government didn’t exist at the Marlboro County School District. Information was withheld not only from the public and the media, but from actual school board members. The newspaper’s reporting and editorials were credited with making a difference in the next school board election.
In Easley, a reporter began challenging the Department of Social Services about rumored problems within the agency. He was stonewalled by DSS and the governor, but his reporting showed what a small weekly newspaper can do to inform the public about a statewide problem.
In Colleton County, a weekly newspaper used the FOIA to investigate inappropriate behavior at the local school district. The paper was able to notify the school board and the sheriff’s office that teachers were having sex with students.
And in a major statewide investigation, The Post and Courier in Charleston used the FOIA to investigate why the state was ranked as the deadliest in the nation for women killed by men. This massive effort resulted in their winning state and national recognition.
In another statewide case, a reporter used the FOIA and aggressive reporting to keep a key hearing in the Bobby Harrell ethics case from being held in secret.
Despite these successes, our state’s FOI law needs improvement. The Legislature is looking at a half dozen bills that would require public bodies to have and post agendas, cut the cost and shorten the time to get copies of public records, set up an FOI review office so complaints wouldn’t have to be resolved in court, and make parts of autopsy reports open to give oversight in police shootings.
Legislators don’t hear much from the public about the FOIA. So if you care about government transparency, please contact your local legislators and ask them to support FOIA reform. It will make a difference.
Rogers is executive director of the S.C. Press Association, an advocate for open government in South Carolina.