Hilton Head Island businessman Skip Hoagland scored big last month when a circuit court judge ruled that the Town of Hilton Head Island could not charge for the time it will take town staff to comply with a subpoena Hoagland has filed, seeking documents. The ruling means Hoagland will only have to pay the cost of copying roughly 4,800 pages of town documents he has requested, including accounting details, spending records and contract bids.
It's good for all parties involved and the community at large to finally have a decision on the front. For too long, it has been unclear what activities local governments could charge for and how much they could charge when the public and media request information.
Now, a ruling is needed on the bigger issue that Hoagland has raised -- whether chambers of commerce, including the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce -- are public bodies and therefore required to follow the state's Freedom of Information Act. The open-records law ensures that the public and the press get a look into the workings of their government.
We believe that all chambers in South Carolina as well as arts groups, non-profits and other organizations that routinely receive accommodations tax dollars are public bodies subject to the FOIA. The law seems clear to us, defining public bodies as governmental entities or any organization supported in whole or in part by public funds.
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Receiving public dollars comes with a requirement of transparency. Groups that do not want to adhere to that policy should forego public money.
But that's not how the state's chambers and other groups have historically viewed it. In fact, we don't know of a single chamber or other organization that receives accommodations tax dollars and adheres to the FOIA. The groups have long held that they are exempt and have routinely denied requests for specific information about their finances and operations.
We hope future court rulings will determine that groups that receive accommodations tax dollars must provide the same level of detail as other public bodies currently do.
Efforts have been made to get the state's highest court to weigh in on the issue. Last year, the Hilton Head-Bluffton chamber asked the S.C. Supreme Court to take up the question.
But the court refused that request. It acted similarly on a second lawsuit last year about whether The S.C. School Administrators Association is a public body. Justices wrote that the decision was a matter to be decided in a lower court trial, based on the evidence presented. (The association claims it is a private membership organization despite the fact that its members, school administrators, pay their dues with money from their school districts.)
A court ruling will help provide much-needed guidance to the public, the chambers and other S.C. groups on the appropriate level of transparency. Until then, it's a matter of opinion -- and the public is the loser in the deal.