By Bill Rogers Special to The Observer
March 20, 2014
It is Sunshine Week.
No, don’t break out the SPF 70 sunscreen… this week is about shining light on government activities.
Lest we forget, letting the sun shine on government actions and records is vital to our free democratic system of government.
While efforts to improve government transparency in our Legislature have stalled for the last two years, there are those in the Palmetto State still fighting the good fight for more sunshine.
First let’s recognize the journalists.
They ply their craft at 16 daily newspapers and 93 weekly newspapers across our state… covering school boards, election commissions, police agencies, city and county councils, state government and public agencies on the public’s behalf. They work at broadcast and digital media outlets.
Take, for instance, two competing weeklies in Walterboro working together with a citizen group to get answers to questions from their local school board about policy matters and expenditures using credit cards.
Take the daily newspaper in Sumter stepping up to challenge a coroner who refused to release his report of the shooting of an innocent man by police. That case is now before the Supreme Court, and its ruling will impact whether police misconduct can be covered up under the guise of protecting health information.
Take a weekly newspaper in Camden that filed a Freedom of Information request when the town clerk in Bethune refused to show them a copy of the town budget. Their persistence found the town had hired the mayor’s son as it new police chief.
The daily newspaper in Greenwood used the FOI to ferret out abuse of “fixed reimbursements” to county council members. Five members of the council had accepted more than $147,000 in payments during a three year period. That is taxpayers’ money, by the way.
When a College of Charleston co-ed accused four Cougar athletes of rape, and the case was closed quietly after a six-month investigation, reporters for the daily newspaper in Charleston reporters filed numerous FOI requests. The paper’s stories showed that campus police didn’t seek outside help in the investigation and that 18 reported assaults led to only one arrest. The reporting also led to a change in state law on how campus sex crimes are handled.
Then let’s thank the citizens who believe they have a right to know how their money is being spent and how decisions that impact them are being made.
Take citizens who come to the Legislature to testify for FOIA reform and who try to find out how their money is being spent and how decisions are being made. In Fairfield County, efforts by a citizens group were instrumental in the ousting of the county manager and improving accountability.
And last but not least, let’s thank those public officials who believe in open government and have open meetings, release public documents and understand that openness builds public trust. These include city council members who walk out of an illegal executive session, school boards that routinely post their expenses to the Web and the Municipal Association of South Carolina for offering ongoing FOI training to new public officials.
And Legislators, including Rep. Bill Taylor of Aiken, who have championed FOIA reform to make it cheaper and quicker for citizens to find out information about government.
Sunshine. It is good for us all, so demand it in government and thank those who fight for it. And don’t forget to wear sunscreen.