Beaufort needs better legal advice on FOIA law

Continued incidents of secrecy show the city lacks even rudimentary knowledge and respect for the Freedom of Information Act.

newsroom@islandpacket.comMarch 4, 2014 

The city government of Beaufort needs a change of culture and an attorney who understands the state's Freedom of Information Act and sees to its enforcement.

Time after time, the city resorts to secrecy as if it were a private club. It is not a private club, and the public is getting sick of being left out of the loop.

The state Freedom of Information Act is simple and straightforward. It is there to guarantee that public business by public bodies is conducted in public.

But the city of Beaufort continues to skirt the law, and city attorney William Brantley "Bill" Harvey III has not done enough to see that obeying the Freedom of Information Act is a top priority.

Last week, it came to light that an advisory body to the City Council decided how to spend $200,000 of public money behind closed doors. In addition, it took no minutes to indicate what give-and-take, what logic and what standards were used in making its recommendations.

This is wrong in every sense of the word. It is unfair, especially to each of the 14 organizations that submitted requests for accommodations tax grants totaling nearly $390,000. It is unwise because it fritters away public trust, which is an irreplaceable pillar of good governance. And it flouts both the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.

Those with only a rudimentary understanding of the law know that advisory bodies to the City Council are subject to the same Freedom of Information Act standards as is City Council and its committees and commissions.

That means the city's Tourism Development Advisory Committee is subject to the Freedom of Information Act, just like City Council.

This is not complex. It is fundamental.

The law requires that the advisory body post its meetings publicly, meet with open doors with all-comers welcome, and take minutes of its meetings.

That did not happen during the long sessions with the local entities seeking "bed tax" grants. Instead, representatives of each entity were brought into a closed meeting, one at a time.

Beaufort must do better.

Is the city's legal guidance this feeble when it comes to city contracts, real estate transactions and human resources issues? Or is the public's right to know seen by the city of Beaufort and attorney Bill Harvey as unimportant, or unenforceable?

Within the past month, we've seen a different city commission declare that a portion of its public meeting was to be considered "off the record." The absurdity of this notion reflects how far off the tracks the city of Beaufort has strayed.

Enough is enough.

The S.C. Press Association offers tangible help.

It offers a booklet called the "Public Official's Guide to Compliance with South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act" that explains in lay terms each provision of the state law. The booklet is available for $2, or it can be downloaded free from the association's website:

That website also offers a number of other resources pertaining to freedom of information, including a "Citizen's Guide to the FOIA."

Also, the press association offers training sessions on the Freedom of Information Act for public officials around the state.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson writes in the "Public Official's Guide to Compliance with South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act" words that need to start being taken seriously at City Hall in Beaufort:

"While drafting South Carolina's FOIA, the General Assembly offered the following:

'The General Assembly finds 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.'"

This is simple. And it is the law.

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