State's public bodies should still draft agendas

It's good news that the Beaufort County School District will continue its longheld practice of drafting agendas before each school board meeting. The agendas alert the public and the media to important discussions and votes on the spending of taxpayers' dollars and changes to policies that affect students. Often, it's the only notification that a hot topic is up for debate.

We encourage the area's other towns, cities and counties to also continue publishing agendas despite a recent S.C. Supreme Court ruling that they don't have to. The justices unanimously ruled last month that agendas are no longer required for regular meetings and that public bodies can add to the list of items they plan to discuss or vote on during those meetings.

The ruling diverges from a practice that our local governments and those around the state have followed for years.

And it opens the door for abuse of the public trust. As Bill Rogers, director of the S.C. Press Association, explained, items can now be placed on the agenda last minute without the public knowing about it. Then, elected officials could take votes without the public ever getting a chance to weigh in on the issue. Or public bodies could decide during meetings to venture off-course and discuss controversial topics without the public knowing ahead of time.

Simply put, these practices are bad government, and we hope none of our local entities would behave in such a way. Residents pay for school, town and county operations and deserve a say. They also deserve to hear discussions between their elected officials, and they deserve to see how each one votes.

The ruling came from a lawsuit brought by a resident who was upset that the Saluda County Council added discussion of its water system to an agenda during a December 2008 meeting. That led to the question of whether agendas are required by law at all.

The justices homed in on a phrase in the state's Freedom of Information Act to answer the question. It reads that "Agenda, if any, for regularly scheduled meetings must be posted." The justices ruled that "if any" means the law does not require agendas for regular meetings.

"In sum, nowhere in FOIA is there a statement that an agenda is required for regularly scheduled meetings," Acting Associate Justice James Moore wrote on behalf of the court. "If the General Assembly wanted to require an agenda for regularly schedule meetings, it could have done so with the simple use of the word 'shall,' which generally signals a command."

That interpretation may be technically correct. But it violates the spirit of the law, which encourages government openness and transparency.

We're hopeful that the Press Association will be successful next year in convincing lawmakers to change state law and require the drafting of agendas.

Already, support exists among some powerful lawmakers, including Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Martin recently told The Greenville News he favored revising the law "and (coming) down on the side of this with as much openness as we can."

Until the law is revised, complete and thorough agendas should continue to be the standard practice of the state's public bodies.