Sunshine Week 2022 Column: SCPA Attorney Taylor Smith
Sunshine Week has arrived and is our annual reminder that if governmental transparency is not achieved our democracy will also never be fully realized. Rejoice, though, the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (SCFOIA) exists and sets minimum duties of transparency on entities who use public funds here. Use it or we may well lose it.
SCFOIA provides (for example) deadlines upon how fast public bodies must respond to open records requests, how fast they must provide those records, and even what records and information must be provided without making a written request. The law also requires the public bodies to give the public notice of their date, time and location of public meetings, as well as the agenda for items to be addressed at the meeting.
A school board during a public meeting wants to add a vote to provide a contract for all vending machine sales to benefit a board member’s brother’s company. SCFOIA provides the minimum duties for how this self-dealing vote can happen. See S.C. Code 30-4-80(A).
The school board approves the sweetheart contract anyway but refuses to show you the proposed terms that all board members reviewed. SCFOIA says you only must ask at the end of the meeting and that contract is all yours. See S.C. Code 30-4-30(D)(4).
The school board scenarios above are only two of many SCFOIA can address. Too often though, they are ignored by public bodies around the state. Whether due to ignorance, incompetence or a desire to maintain a status quo of operational secrecy, too often sunshine is not achieved in this state.
If holding public officials to account for their actions while in office is a core function of democracy, the public (and particularly the press) must be transparent about their problems with getting governmental transparency. The people must know (hopefully, from the press) when the government is breaking the law, avoiding public scrutiny.
Go to the S.C. Press Association website (www.scpress.org) and under the “FOIA” tab go to the Public Official’s Guide to Compliance with SCFOIA. Put this PDF on your smartphone and use it to look up the above code sections, read the law and (eventually) cite to it when your public official tries to break the law. Finally, report your local problems with transparency and help SCPA staff when they are traveling to the S.C. Statehouse to battle forces of darkness in the legislature.
If you can do that… we won’t lose SCFOIA and democracy just might prevail.
Taylor M. Smith IV is a media lawyer who represents the S.C. Press Association and its newspapers. Smith is a partner at Harrison, Radeker & Smith, P.A. in Columbia. The Press Association is an advocate for open government in South Carolina.