A recent court ruling is a step in the right direction for increasing transparency.
But the case needs a vetting before the S.C. Supreme Court for the important issues it raises to be settled once and for all.
At issue is Circuit Court Judge Michael Nettles’ ruling last month that Skip Hoagland, a longtime, vocal critic of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, is allowed access to various chamber documents under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Because the chamber receives accommodations taxes — revenues generated from overnight lodging — it is a public body and must comply with the law, ruled Nettles.
The Freedom of Information Act states that an entity supported “in whole or in part by public funds” is subject to the law. A 1991 Supreme Court ruling confirmed that.
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The nonprofit chamber plans to appeal the ruling. Its attorneys have said that even though the chamber is the designated marketing organization for the Town of Hilton Head Island, it is not a public body. Rather, they say, it is a private nonprofit organization, exempt from releasing documents that Hoagland and others have requested. They add that the chamber has released documents that show how accommodations-tax dollars were spent.
But they have denied Hoagland’s request for all accounts, vouchers and contracts dealing with the receipt or spending of public money. This newspaper has also made a request to the chamber that was denied — a list of contractors and organizations paid by the chamber for goods and services, employees’ pay and its revenue sources.
To date, the lower courts have not brought clarity to whether chambers are public bodies and what limitations should be placed on the Freedom of Information Act. Individual judges in different parts of the state have reached very different conclusions on the matters.
It’s time for the S.C. Supreme Court to step in and have the final say.
A recent opinion by the high court gives some insight into the justices’ thinking on the topic. In 2013, it rejected an argument, presented by the S.C. School Administrators Association, that requiring nonprofits to comply with the Freedom of Information Act violated their First Amendment rights.
This might be a good omen for Hoagland’s lawsuit, which could be headed to the high court as well. The chamber’s lawyer, Bobby Stepp of Columbia, has said he will ask the state Supreme Court to bypass the Court of Appeals and take up the case to expedite it.
We still hold out hope that the justices will be faithful to the stated goal of the law and require the release of all documents that show how public dollars are used.