Editorial: Freedom of Information suffers as special interests are exempt
Shouldn’t we just scrap the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act? What good is it, if the SC Supreme Court won’t support it?
Only Justice John Few has the common sense to say that financial transparency in South Carolina is important. “It requires no elaborate analysis to apply the plain words of the FOIA and reach the conclusion that the Chamber’s agreement to expend these public funds renders it a public body subject to the record disclosure requirements of the FOIA,” Few wrote, in dissent, in an opinion rendered in legal action brought by DomainsNewMedia.com, a company owned by Lowcountry resident Skip Hoagland and filed against the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
Unlike in Laurens County, when the Chamber of Commerce in Hilton Head gets involved, believe us, there are millions and millions of dollars of public money involved. Now, that money - and all Chambers’ money - can be spent in secret.
It’s just one of the distressing number of loopholes in the SC FOIA. Executive sessions are rampant, employed in recent meetings by the Clinton City Council, the Clinton Economic Development Corporation, the Laurens County Council, the Laurens County Water and Sewer Commission, the District 56 Board of Trustees, and the Laurens County Health Care System Board of Trustees. In fairness we should point out, the D56 Board is hiring teacher, and the City and LCWSC are negotiating a contract related to Whitten Center sewer and Lake Greenwood water. Obviously, the City doesn’t want the LCWSC board to know its negotiation strategies, and vice versa. But, things leak out - the only people really being kept in the dark are the people paying the bills.
Same is true in Hilton Head-Bluffton and, really, all over South Carolina. The “specific purpose” executive session clause is never used, and cannot be enforced. Legal action is hugely expensive - and with newspapers being ripped apart financially by the Trump Tariff, there’s not a lot of money left over after salaries and electricity to take a matter to court. Just defending AGAINST lawyers looking for opportunities is expensive for newspaper.
Also, the underlying fallacy of the FOIA is that it’s a “news media law” - no, it is for everyone. Need to know how many council meetings your representative has missed in the last two years? File an FOIA request. The public body you’re interested in must respond - although, sometimes that “response” is “Here’s how much money it will cost you to find out.” The fees sometimes are waived for news media but, really, that’s not fair. What makes us so special?
In this most recent set-back for FOI, Justice John Kittredge wrote, “The trial court held that the Chamber was a public body and, thus, was subject to FOIA’s provisions. We reverse. We hold, as a matter of discerning legislative intent, that the General Assembly did not intend the Chamber to be considered a public body for purposes of FOIA as a result of its receipt and expenditure of these specific funds. 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.” Chief justice Donald Beatty concurred, and justices Kaye Hearn and George C. “Buck” James went along.
This majority ruling is condoning just the kind of financial shenanigans that leave SCANA and SCE&G reaping millions from ratepayers while building a faulty nuclear power plant. Like Chambers, now protected by a Supreme Court ruling, they are part of South Carolina’s shadow government - and there is no sunshine that we, or private citizens, can bring to bear. Just pay up, and like it, that’s what we are being told.