South Carolina’s open meetings and records law, designed to make government transparent and keep citizens informed, increasingly is being eroded by some state and local public officials.
Whether it is the result of court decisions, acts by elected officials, or bureaucrats who make decisions such as charging the public high prices to copy public records, people acting in the name of government are taking actions that keep the public in the dark.
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The problem seems to have accelerated in the past several months.
“Politicians and bureaucrats don’t want people to know what they are doing,” said John Crangle, executive director of S.C. Common Cause, a watchdog group. “They don’t want to be inconvenienced by the public, even though the public is their boss.”
Even the S.C. Supreme Court, which in the past could usually be relied upon to uphold the public’s right to know, has joined the march to more secrecy.
In three recent decisions in the last two months, justices have:
• Ruled that coroners’ autopsy reports can be kept secret because they are “medical records,” even though the person is dead and there is no privacy to protect. Autopsy records usually contain details about the cause of death as well as whether the person had diseases such as cancer or AIDS.
As a practical matter, reporters and members of the public don’t usually request to see autopsy records. But in the case of a police shooting or similar matter of high public interest, an autopsy report dealing with the cause and manner of death could supply essential information about the case. That’s what happened in Sumter, when police said they shot and killed a man because he was facing them with a gun. But the autopsy report, obtained by local reporter Joe Perry from another source after the coroner said he could not have it, showed the man was shot twice in the back and twice in the back of the head. The (Sumter) Item newspaper sued and lost.
• Ruled that public bodies such as county councils don’t have to publish agendas for upcoming regular meetings. The high court said a close reading of the S.C. Freedom of Information Act showed it only required councils to publish times and dates of next year’s meetings. Thus, since the FOIA didn’t specifically say an agenda must be published for all those meetings, no agenda is required, the high court ruled.
• Ruled that state Judge Casey Manning must close an upcoming hearing about whether to disqualify Attorney General Alan Wilson from overseeing an ongoing State Grand Jury investigation into whether House Speaker Bobby Harrell mishandled his campaign finances. This pro-secrecy ruling overrides a precedent set earlier this year, when Manning allowed the public and press to attend two open hearings at the Richland County courthouse on the matter after The State newspaper learned of the unannounced hearing.
Chief Justice Jean Toal, one of the chief authors of the state’s “sunshine law” when she represented Richland County in the S.C. House, voted with the majority in each of the three Supreme Court rulings.
In both the autopsy reports case and the agenda case, the Supreme Court noted that the Legislature has the power to change the law concerning agendas and autopsy records.
State Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said last week he will hold a Senate Judiciary Committee study committee in the fall and get citizens and stakeholders to talk about the agenda and autopsy issues.
“Both decisions in my view need to be addressed,” said Martin, Judiciary Committee chairman.
There should be a way to require agendas for public meetings – except in cases of emergencies – and to open up public interest portions of an autopsy report without making the rest of the autopsy accessible to sensationalists who would do things like post autopsy photographs on the Internet, Martin said.
“We are going to listen to what the coroners have to say about what would be involved in maybe redacting some of that information,” Martin said.
Many public bodies don’t need to be told to post an agenda.
“We tell our clients it’s good business to publish an agenda before every meeting,” said Columbia attorney Ken Childs, whose firm represents numerous school districts across South Carolina. “It tells the public what is going to be discussed. It makes for an orderly meeting. It’s just common sense.”
Not all judges are inclined toward secrecy.
Just last week, State Judge Eugene Griffith ordered Attorney General Alan Wilson to release documents relating to the estate of musician James Brown. The ruling was a victory for freelance journalist Sue Summer of Newberry, who has long been trying to get access to normally public court documents in Brown’s estate. She is represented by former state senator Tom Pope of Newberry and media lawyer Jay Bender of Columbia, who also does work for The State newspaper.
In a statement Friday, Wilson’s office said he has not decided whether he will fight the judge’s order or make the documents public. Wilson has 15 days to produce the documents.
Sometimes, government chooses to release information, despite provisions in the open records law that would allow secrecy. As far as is known, no harm to anyone has resulted.
At least eight times in the past three years, for example, Columbia City Council could have gone behind closed doors to discuss “legal matters,” but its members voted to allow the public to listen to discussions on: purchase agreements for the Palmetto Compress Warehouse, changing the city’s form of government and salaries of the mayor and council members.
But that’s not the norm, says S.C. Press Association executive director Bill Rogers, who keeps tabs on public access.
“We are definitely seeing a trend toward public relations folks managing the news, sanitizing information and slowing down its release,” Rogers said. “The public should be concerned.”
Read more at thestate.com/2014/07/26/3586047/officials-across-south-carolina.html. You can do a SCDC inmate search online at the South Carolina Department of Corrections website. You can view the photographs and public information on a specific inmate. You will need the first and last name of the inmate as well as either their SCDC ID or State Identification ID.