No excuse for ignorance on public's right to know

info@islandpacket.comFebruary 20, 2014 

MORGUEFILE.COM

Some city of Beaufort officials say they will consider formal training to teach board and commission members about public-meeting and public-records law.

The need for instruction was made starkly evident when the Historic District Review Board violated the S.C. Freedom of Information Act by adjourning a recent meeting and continuing to discuss board business with a quorum present.

Training is a welcomed possibility, but it raises a question: Who will conduct it?

All sorts of public bodies -- and certainly not just within the city of Beaufort -- constantly show a lack of familiarity with the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. Some even ignore it, based on the bad advice of their attorneys.

For example, some enter executive sessions without stating explicitly the reason for doing so, which the law demands.

Some take straw polls during executive sessions.

Many cite "personnel matters" as justification for withholding information about public employees, despite court precedent that no such blanket protection exists.

Sometimes, even when public bodies don't violate the letter of the law, they intentionally flout its spirit.

For instance, the Jasper County school board gave a pay raise and contract extension to its embattled superintendent this past December but failed to provide any documentation from her annual review. In fact, there were no documents to provide: "Having the evaluation forms resulted in (Freedom of Information Act) demands for the forms," the district's attorney explained, "and that became embarrassing for the superintendents, so they don't have forms anymore."

So who can be trusted to inform people on public boards and bodies about their legal obligation to be transparent?

Our thought is that elected officials, volunteer commission members and public employees can do a lot to educate themselves.

A good way to start is by reading the state's FOIA. It's not difficult to find. For those who have difficulty deciphering the bill itself, the state Attorney General's Office issues a public official's guide to FOIA compliance, which is available through several outlets, including the S.C. Press Association website.

Had the Historic District Review Board members acquainted themselves with the law, they would have known that they couldn't go "off the record," as member Mike Rainey requested, nor could they stop taking minutes and continue to discuss board business after chairman Joel Newman adjourned their Feb. 12 meeting. To their credit, Mayor Billy Keyserling and city manager Scott Dadson, who were not present, acknowledged emphatically that the board acted improperly.

Familiarity with the text of the law is complemented by an appreciation for the spirit in which it was written: The public's work should be conducted in public view.

The law carves a few specific exceptions in which public bodies can work in private or withhold information, but it almost never obligates them to do so. Put another way, even where the law allows secrecy, public bodies can still opt to operate in the sunshine.

That should be the default setting, whether the member of the public body is a volunteer commissioner, an elected official or a public employee.

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