Sunshine? What sunshine?
We have had town councils throw the public out of meetings and lock the doors so that they could discuss how they will spend taxpayers’ money in private. We have had public bodies refuse to release public records unless those requesting them pay outlandish sums of money — for simply searching for and forwarding a few emails.
There is little recourse when local governments or school districts refuse to obey the law. Anyone who wants to enforce the law must sue the public body violating it. That’s a level of time and monetary resources to which few individuals or groups can commit. Public bodies know this, so they are often flagrant in their disregard for the law.
Never miss a local story.
A bill working its way through the General Assembly would change that. It would create an office of review where an administrative judge could hear disputes about public information and issue a timely decision.…
A number of state agencies are saying the bill would cost them money if it is passed. Departments like Disabilities and Special Needs, Education and Health and Human Services are saying they would have to hire more people and spend more money if the bill were passed.
This is odd because the bill wouldn’t make any additional documents public. It would simply require agencies to obey the law.
Hey, who turned out the lights?
The S.C. Policy Council did an experiment to find out how responsive 11 state agencies are to requests for information under FOIA laws.…
The Senate is a different story. While it did reply within 15 days, it applied the same section of the FOIA law to claim a total exemption.
“To the extent that any public documents responsive to your request exist and are in the Senate’s possession, those public documents are exempt from disclosure.” The Senate’s response went on to say, “Furthermore, your request for names and other identifying information constitutes an unreasonable invasion of the personal privacy of those making request which likewise makes those documents exempt from disclosure.”
In essence, the halls of the state Senate apparently are hallowed and the public has no right to know who has requested public information from that body, how much it charged anyone for information given under FOIA, how many FOIA requests it even received (well, we at least know the Senate received one request, that coming from SCPC) and so forth.
Taxpayers should derive great discomfort from knowing the state Senate thinks itself above state law. And what can you do about it? Not much. The most you can likely do is make your thoughts known on Election Day because the state’s FOIA comes with gums, not teeth. There is little to no punishment to mete out and a lawsuit comes at great cost in terms of time and money when any public body flouts FOIA laws.
And you wonder why meaningful reform to our state’s FOIA comes at a sloth’s speed, if at all.
A new call for ethics reforms
Ethics reform wasn’t on the short list of legislative priorities this year, but 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe has put it front and center with the release of a grand jury indictment of Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, on Thursday.
The indictment alleges the conversion of campaign funds for personal use by Mr. Courson, who is among the Senate’s senior members.…
An extensive examination of legislative campaign contributions in the wake of the Harrell scandal by reporter Tony Bartelme and the Center for Public Integrity, concluded that lawmakers were using campaign funds for a broad range of questionable purposes, including travel, gifts and even fines for ethics violations.
John Crangle, then director of Common Cause South Carolina, called the state’s ethics laws “a tangled mess” that made almost any expense allowable.
Last year, the Legislature made improvements to the ethics law to provide for more income disclosure and more accountability over legislative ethics violations. Mr. Pascoe’s continuing investigation should encourage legislators to take a closer look at additional shortcomings in the law.