Scoppe: Transparency’s a great slogan; it’d be a better policy

Associate EditorSeptember 5, 2012 

JUST IN TIME for the kickoff of the fall endorsement season — our first candidates are coming in for interviews on Thursday — the S.C. Press Association has rolled out a “Transparency Pledge” that it’s urging newspapers to have candidates sign, apparently as a condition of endorsement.

We’re going to decline, because we don’t think candidates ought to be signing any sort of pledges, and we’ve never endorsed or not endorsed anyone based on a single issue, and I hope we never do. But the idea that newspapers — and voters — should pressure individual politicians to make our government more open is a good one.

I can even understand the impulse to want something in writing — politicians’ talk being even cheaper than normal when it comes to making the workings of government more visible.

Transparency, or at least talk of transparency, has been all the rage among elected officials since the S.C. Policy Council handed the reins to its nascent transparency campaign to an obscure back-bench House member, who used promises of a new era of government openness to catapult herself into the governor’s mansion.

Ask Policy Council President Ashley Landess how that’s been working out for her — and us — and you might imagine you heard a snarl. Or maybe that wasn’t your imagination.

Actually, she sounded more sheepish than attack-dog when we talked last week, after I wrote that her organization (by which I meant her) had single-handedly created the phenomenon that is Nikki Haley, Transparency Crusader, only to watch her morph into the Empress of Opacity.

“I really was swayed by that insider-strategy thinking of putting the politicians out front as the messenger,” she explained, noting that she had tried to interest lots of lawmakers in her efforts to require recorded votes in the Legislature, but only then-Rep. Nikki Haley bit. “I’ve learned a lot of tough lessons from that.”

First lesson: Don’t let politicians co-opt your campaign. Which is the central tenet of her just-launched “Reclaiming the Power” campaign that is heavily weighted toward transparency and insistent that the public, and not the politicians, must define just what that means. (More on that another day.)

Ms. Landess says Gov. Haley could reclaim her transparency mantle by ordering the agencies that report to her to bring their gubernatorially mandated “How can I help you?” attitude to the Freedom of Information Act. To respond as quickly as they can rather than dragging their feet for as long as the law allows (and then some). To stop charging exorbitant costs for “labor” for state employees to compile information that is by law public. Or, she said, the governor could order her Commerce Department to provide the information the Policy Council has been trying for ages to track down about how much taxpayers are subsidizing economic-development projects.

And Attorney General Alan Wilson, who accompanied the governor on the ethics-reform tour last month that drew catcalls from the Policy Council and activists and lawmakers on the left and right, “could enforce the FOIA law that says if you get a public dollar, you are a public body” and therefore must provide financial and other information to the public upon request.

Back to the Press Association’s Transparency Pledge, which is tilted heavily toward the secretive sorts of things that school boards and city and county councils do, since they’re the worst offenders of what passes for an open-government law in our state. Here’s what Executive Director Bill Rogers suggests elected officials and candidates promise to do:

•  “Participate in no votes or straw polls in executive sessions or via electronic means.”

•  “Use my public email account for public business, and in the event I use my private email I will send a copy to my public account. I agree that discussions of government business by personal email, text or other electronic devices remain the public’s business and as such should be readily available for public access.”

•  “Discuss only specified and legally justified items in executive session. In the event an illegal discussion begins, I will ask the chair to defer any discussion until the public session. If this fails, I will not participate further in the discussion.”

•  “Understand it is my right and responsibility to view financial and other records of my public body.”

•  “Support providing public records to the public in a prompt manner with minimal costs involved.”

•  “Read the Public Official’s Guide to Compliance with South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act.”

I disagree with that private email thing. Demanding that elected officials refrain from using private email accounts — or their private cell phones — for political conversations isn’t much different than demanding that they record all of their conversations with other elected officials and share those with the public.

The reason we have a right to see public employees’ government emails is that we pay for them. The reason we have a right to be invited whenever a majority of the members of a public body are together is that, at that point, they have the ability to make law. We don’t have a right to listen in on every conversation among politicians, or to force them to use the public resources that give us that right. Frankly, that would probably result in worse government instead of better, because it would deprive elected officials of the ability to have the frank discussions about policy that often are essential to wise decisions.

But what’s striking about the rest of the proposals — and, for that matter, Ms. Landess’ suggestions about how the governor and the attorney general could build some transparency bona fides — is how very modest they are.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think that even two years into the reign of the Transparency Governor, we still rank dead last nationally in public access to government information.

Oh wait: We do.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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