South Carolinians share a common value that public meetings and the work of government should be done in public so it is open and transparent to everyone. This is enshrouded in law as the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
Simply put, the law ensures the public’s business is done in public. There are a few exceptions, such as when sensitive contracts are in debate or when somebody’s job performance is being scrutinized. But on the whole, public business is supposed to be available for inspection by the public, the people who pay for our government entities.
This expectation for public work to be done in the open — in the sunshine — is not partisan.
GOP Gov. Henry McMaster supports the notion in a S.C. Press Association guide on how public officials should comply with open meetings and open records laws: “As public servants, we should always endeavor to maintain the public’s trust and confidence in their government. In that spirit, I hope you will remember ‘When in doubt — disclose,’ ” S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson concurred: “We have an obligation not only to adhere to the letter of the law, but also live up to its spirit through compliance with every reasonable FOIA request without delay or obstruction.”
Public scrutiny is hard because it might bring to light some uncomfortable things. But lots of elected and non-elected public officials comply with the law. It’s too common, however, for those who don’t want the light of transparency to shine to slide.
An example is public access to police records. The law absolutely and clearly requires written records, such as meeting minutes, jail logs and two weeks of criminal incident reports, to be available to anyone who asks for them — without any strings attached. That means anyone — a member of the public or a reporter — should be able to walk into a police station and see an arrest report without a written request or any prior notice.
In January, checks with several police departments in Charleston County revealed how agencies skirted or blatantly disregarded the law. One agency, for example, agreed to provide information that was redacted. Another required a reporter to submit a formal written FOIA request. Others seemed unaware of the openness required by the law.
Unfortunately, too many non-elected public officials don’t seem to understand just who they work for. They, in fact, work for the people who pay their salaries. They work for you and me.
Back in 1902 in a speech in Asheville, North Carolina, President Theodore Roosevelt addressed how the American government isn’t separate and distant from the American people: “Now the government is us — we are the government, you and I; and the government is going to do well or ill accordingly as we with sanity, with resolution, with broad charity and sound common sense make up our minds that the affairs of the government shall be managed. … No law, no leadership can possibly take the place of the exercise by the average citizen of the fundamental virtues of good citizenship – the exercise of the fundamental qualities of honesty, courage and common sense.”
Yes, the government is us. And government officials who don’t understand the Freedom of Information Act should learn it and comply. They need to start making more information available to all citizens. When in doubt, as the governor says, make information public.
And if public officials don’t or won’t? Perhaps state legislators could put some real teeth in the law and hold violators personally responsible for lazy or intentional failure to make records and meetings open. Maybe that will get the slackers’ attention. There’s no point in having a law requiring openness if some people can slide by.
Write your state representative or senator today and encourage them to put some meaningful teeth in the state’s Freedom of Information Act so that public officials do what they are supposed to — provide information so “we the people” can gauge whether the “government that is us” is using tax money properly and administering our government with, as Roosevelt said 120 years ago, “honesty, courage and common sense.”
Andy Brack, a member of the board of directors of the S.C. Press Association, is publisher of the Charleston City Paper and editor and publisher of Statehouse Report.