Beaufort County administrator Gary Kubic hit the nail on the head when he noted that other states have found ways to offer greater transparency to the public in their open records laws, and South Carolina can, too.
Kubic, who also was a public administrator in Ohio, raised the issue in the context of government worker compensation and asked in a recent letter for help from Gov. Nikki Haley and local lawmakers. Right now, state law states that annual compensation for workers making less than $50,000 can be reported in a range, not the specific amount. Compensation for people earning $50,000 or more or for those who are department or agency heads must be reported exactly and for each person.
There's little to be gained in the way of privacy by reporting a salary range, but there's a lot to be gained from recognizing the value of full public disclosure on how tax dollars are spent.
Kubic wrote: "As a public administrator, I receive freedom of information requests from citizens requesting information regarding employees and elected officials. These information requests sometimes ask us to provide salary data, position identification, overtime payments, stipends and other forms of compensation. Unfortunately, the language of our state statutes regarding public access may infringe upon the opportunity to share salary and benefit information with our taxpayers. Perhaps it is time to change our statutes in favor of public disclosure."
Central to his request is the state law's option to hold back information, rather than a requirement to disclose. The law states: "A public body may but is not required to exempt from disclosure the following information ... "
That means Kubic and others in similar positions must decide whether to disclose specific compensation information, rather than simply point to a legal requirement to do so.
The word "may" occurs often in the state's Freedom of Information Act when it comes to opportunities to shut out the public. Unfortunately, many public officials interpret that word always to mean "must." They use the law as a closed door rather than its intended purpose -- an open window to how government operates.
We note again the law's intent, stated in its preamble:
"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. Toward this end, provisions of this chapter must be construed so as to make it possible for citizens, or their representatives, to learn and report fully the activities of their public officials at a minimum cost or delay to the persons seeking access to public documents or meetings."
Of course, there's always some danger in opening up this law for change. Lawmakers could make it worse rather than better for transparency and openness.
In the meantime, we suggest Kubic and other public officials exercise the option for openness the law offers.