THERE’S A lot the Legislature can’t do in the three days remaining in the regular legislative session. One thing it can do is give us a reason to have a little more trust in our government.
The best way to do that, of course, is to pass the bills requiring legislators to tell us where they get their income and allowing an independent panel to investigate their compliance with the ethics law. And they need to do that. But three other measures just a few steps away from the governor’s desk would also help, by requiring police and local governments to obey the Freedom of Information Act and requiring towns and cities to actually hold elections rather than coronating council members. Seriously.
S.913 requires police to release dash-cam video to anyone who wants to see it, unless they can convince a judge that doing so would impede a criminal investigation or cause a very limited number of other problems. State law already requires them to release the video except under limited circumstances, but too often when the video involves police shootings, they refuse, for months or even years, citing an exemption that doesn’t say what they say it says.
Under the bill the Senate passed 40-0 in April, the judge could order the video released, order part of it released or order it kept private, for a limited time. The judge would have to explain his decision — something police and prosecutors don’t do now. I suspect police will become a lot more willing to comply with the law once they realize that people don’t have to hire a lawyer, file a lawsuit and wait and wait and wait for that suit to be heard before they are ordered to let the public in on the public’s business.
Compliance is also the goal of H.3191, which the House passed 90-16 last year. It would create a state review office to hear appeals when a public body refuses to release public information, rather than making citizens file a lawsuit. The bill also reduces the time governments have to provide records and prevents them from price-gouging for copies. (The bill applies to state government as well, but local governments are the most notorious scofflaws.)
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved H.3191 in March, but Sen. Margie Bright Matthews objected to it, which means the Senate won’t vote on it. So the House Judiciary Committee replaced the language from the dash-cam bill with language in the larger open-records bill, and on Thursday the House approved that new bill. Supporters of both bills say they hope Senate conferees will add the public-records language back to the bill, and the Legislature will pass both measures.
The other trust-in-government bill that could pass this week, H.4944, would eliminate most election-free elections.
Under an almost-certainly unconstitutional law that has been on the books since 2003, municipal elections are called off and the one candidate declared elected when only one person files for a council seat and no write-in candidates make themselves known by 14 days after filing closes.
The law started out as a way to save money when only one person files to finish an unexpired term in a special election. But someone got the idea that since so many municipal elections are uncontested, cities and counties could save some money if those elections also were called off. Never mind that this strips voters of even the illusion of having any say in who governs them — and renders last-minute write-in campaigns impossible (that’s the constitutional problem).
It would be bad enough to leave it up to the city or town to decide whether to call off the election, as a lot of people believe happens. But this being South Carolina, that’s not how the law works. The law prohibits those elections. When election officials have to open the polls anyway — say, when there’s a contested citywide race — and the ballots have already been printed, the name of the unchallenged candidate does not have to be removed. But election officials are prohibited from counting any write-in votes.
Hundreds of people have been “elected” without their names appearing on a ballot since the law went into effect. They’re usually council members in our smallest of towns; but in November, Greenville Mayor Knox White was re-elected without benefit of election.
Last fall, I wrote about the decision by the town of Arcadia Lakes to hold an election in violation of this law. And Kershaw Rep. Laurie Funderburk told me she was inspired by my column to read the 2003 attorney general’s opinion that said the law violated a provision of the state constitution that gives every qualified voter “an equal right to elect officers and be elected to fill public office.”
“Made sense to me to fix it,” she said. And amazingly, the House agreed, 100-0. And on Thursday, the Senate gave her bill second reading.
That means the bill could be on its way to the governor’s desk as early as today. If so, that’ll be one public-trust-restoration act down, four to go.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.