Beaufort taking steps to increase transparency

Other public bodies should follow city of Beaufort's lead, teaching officials about state requirement to be open with the public.

newsroom@islandpacket.comMarch 14, 2014 

Too often, Lowcountry public bodies violate South Carolina's public-records and open-meetings law.

And too often, they become obstinate when confronted with proof of their law-breaking.

Thus, it is heartening that the city of Beaufort is reacting quickly and affirmatively to help those who serve on its boards, commissions and councils understand their obligation to do the public's work in public view. After a spate of violations of the S.C. Freedom of Information Act's open-meeting provisions, the city has arranged a seminar on the topic. All members of city boards and commissions have been invited to a meeting at 5 p.m. March 19 at City Hall.

The recent violations demonstrate the need for this seminar:

  • In February, the Historic District Review Board adjourned a meeting and stopped taking minutes, but continued to discuss board business "off the record" with a majority of members present.

  • In December, the Tourism Development Advisory Committee met to discuss accommodations-tax grants. However, it did not publicize the meeting, and it kept the meeting-room door shut while grant applicants made their presentations in private.

  • In November, the City Council approved an agreement with a company to plan a makeover of the Beaufort Downtown Marina parking lot, based on a recommendation by the Beaufort Redevelopment Commission. But at that time, the commission had only discussed its recommendation in closed session and had never taken a public vote.

  • City officials agree the first two instances violated public-meeting laws; they maintain that its actions in the third instance were proper.

    Seminar leader Bill Taylor, field-services manager for the Municipal Association of South Carolina, might remind attendees that formal votes or informal straw polls are not allowed in closed sessions -- acts that would have been necessary for the Redevelopment Commission's chairman to accurately and assuredly report the body's consensus to council.

    The S.C. Municipal Association is a good choice to conduct the open-meeting seminar. The organization has a record of advocating openness.

    In fact, the association's credibility on such matters was burnished during similar training in 2009, when an association official reminded Bluffton Town Council that before entering a closed session, it must vote and publicly state a specific reason to do so.

    In the months before this training, the council had become a chronic violator of both provisions, and continued to break the law even after this newspaper provided town officials with 1988 and 2004 Attorney General's opinions indicating their actions were illegal.

    The Municipal Association's interaction with Bluffton is instructive for another reason, which Beaufort officials must recognize

    Just five years earlier, Bluffton spent $1,350 for a lightly-attended workshop by the University of South Carolina's Institute for Public Service and Policy Research. The workshop included FOIA education for the town's board, commission and council members. But by 2009, the town had a new administrator, a new mayor and a fresh disregard for FOIA.

    The upshot: Beaufort's seminar is encouraging, but the city should go a step further. The city must insist that board members participate, and it must provide frequent refreshers.

    The S.C. Press Association offers a booklet, "Public Official's Guide to Compliance with South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act." It explains in lay terms each provision of the state law. Hard copies sell for $2, and a PDF can be downloaded free from the association's website, www.scpress.org.

    This handbook should be standard issue for all in a position of public trust.

    Such readily available material makes ignorance of FOIA's provisions inexcusable. With follow-through, Beaufort's training session can be the first step toward making it intolerable, as well.

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