Editorial: Don’t use FOI ruling as excuse to shut public out of government

July 7, 2014 

The Columbia City Council, like most local governments, plays fast and loose with the state’s open meetings law; a new court ruling could make it worse.

TRACY GLANTZ — tglantz@thestate.com Buy Photo

— GOVERNMENTAL bodies shouldn’t need a law to force them to release their agendas to the public in advance of their meetings. Public officials who have any interest whatsoever in serving the public would do this voluntarily, at the same time they provide the agenda to their members.

So now that the state Supreme Court has reversed everyone’s understanding of what our open meetings law requires, we’ll find out which governing bodies have any interest in serving the public: They’ll be the ones that continue to release their agendas at least 24 hours in advance of meetings.

Frankly, there’s no good reason that agendas shouldn’t be released much sooner than 24 hours before a meeting. If something comes up late that needs to be added, officials can amend the agenda, and share that information with the public as soon as it’s available.

We are surprised that anyone thought the law prohibited public bodies from amending their agendas. But the chairman of the Saluda County Water and Sewer Authority, Dennis Lambries, got himself in a tizzy after his County Council voted during a regular meeting to take up a non-binding resolution about water and sewer services. He filed a lawsuit, and the result was that the Supreme Court not only confirmed that agendas may be amended but said governments don’t have to release an agenda for regular meetings. Which is to say that someone’s petulant lawsuit over a non-binding resolution is likely to result in much less open and accessible government across our state.

While a separate provision that the court didn’t mention requires governments to “notify persons or organizations, local news media, or such other news media as may request notification of the times, dates, places, and agenda of all public meetings,” the court hung its ruling on the first part of the statute, which merely requires the posting of an agenda, “if any,” for regularly scheduled meetings.

It should come as no surprise that our Freedom of Information Act doesn’t provide as much information as it ought to; it never has been particularly muscular. What makes this ruling so distressing is that governments in our state — particularly at the local level — never have been particularly careful about obeying the meager requirements we do have. One of their favorite abuses is to claim “attorney-client” privilege and hide their actions from the public any time they receive advice from an attorney the taxpayers pay to advise them.

That practice, along with their fabricated “personnel matters” exemption from the public meetings law, should have promoted the Legislature to act long ago to strengthen the law and the penalties for violating it. But it didn’t.

Surely this ruling, overturning what everyone had understood the law to be, will give our lawmakers impetus to act once and for all and write a law that comports with its high-minded preamble, which declares that “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 and in the formulation of public policy.”

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