South Carolina citizens took it on the chin Wednesday.
The state Supreme Court made it much harder, if not impossible, for citizens to follow millions of dollars of public money.
It ruled that the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce is not subject to the state Freedom of Information Act. That is unfortunate because the chamber receives approximately $1.5 million annually from the Town of Hilton Head Island as its official tourism marketing agency.
Statewide, tens of millions of public dollars are now shielded from the direct public oversight granted by the FOIA.
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The FOIA is the citizens’ greatest tool to hold public officials accountable and pierce the wall of secrecy so many public bodies build around themselves. To see this authority that has been carefully placed in the hands of the people being chipped away at is demoralizing.
This case started years ago when a citizen was denied information sought under the FOIA. Chamber antagonist C.C. “Skip” Hoagland then turned to the courts. A lower court ruled in favor of his DomainsNewMedia.com, saying the Chamber was a public body.
But last week, Supreme Court Justice John W. Kittredge wrote for the 4-1 court majority: “While the Chamber technically expends public funds, we are firmly persuaded that the General Assembly did not intend the Chamber to be considered a public body for FOIA purposes based upon its receipt and expenditure of accommodation tax funds.”
The legislative intent seems crystal clear to us. The FOIA says a public body is “... any organization, corporation, or agency supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds ...”
The high court ruled that this is not enough to be considered a public body. It pointed to the law that enabled the state accommodations tax on overnight lodging, which is the source of the marketing dollars that go to the Chamber. The court said that law, not the FOIA, protects the public’s right to know how those millions of dollars are spent.
A greater burden now falls to the Town of Hilton Head Island — and all local governments allocating tax dollars to private entities — to protect the public’s right to know.
That’s not very encouraging, if recent history is any indication. When Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett was new to office, he tried to get much greater town oversight and involvement in the Chamber’s tourism marketing. He ran into a buzzsaw of opposition. He wanted a new contractual arrangement. In the end, a five-year contract was narrowly approved by Town Council, but it was over Bennett’s objection because he did not think it went far enough to assure transparency and accountability.
One suggestion that was rejected during that 2015 public discussion was for the town contract to specify that the Chamber would be subject to the FOIA.
The town’s Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee now must roll up its sleeves and dig deeper, demanding the public display of specific financial information from any organization that wants it to approve a penny of public money.
The Supreme Court’s unfortunate ruling touts this body as one of the guarantees of public oversight written into the accommodations tax law. These advisory committees makes ATAX spending recommendations to Town Council or County Council. Now all those public bodies must push harder for a public that is being told it has no right to ask questions for itself.
It is a shame to see this direct access sidestepped, or watered down. The public needs new advocates.