Reinforce Public Trust

Although government may indeed work best when it works least, for it to work at all – fairly, equitably and justly – it should work, with only the rarest of exceptions, in the full light of day. In the open. In public. And in a place most easily accessible by the most people, striving always to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest majority of its citizens.

There is a natural tendency, it appears, to trend toward secrecy when operating from a position of leadership, even when that position is a grant of trust from the public. Upon entering the halls of government, even the most dedicated reformers can be seduced by the scent of power and lose touch with the forces of gravity. Whether or not their initial intentions were pure, soon, they too may be lured into backroom deals, clandestine meetings and secret handshakes with shady customers. It is a natural human weakness.

Fortunately, the public has a tool with which to pry open the too-often closed doors of government. Unfortunately, that tool – the S.C. Freedom of Information Act – took a bloody nose last month from the State Supreme Court. A panel of four of our five judges reviewing the question of whether or not agendas could be amended less than 24 hours before a meeting based its ruling on language in the FOIA that states that agendas “if any, for regularly scheduled meetings, must be posted” at least 24 hours in advance. The Court ruled that agendas could indeed be amended, and by basing their decision on the “if any” language de facto opened the door for meetings to be held with no agendas posted whatsoever.

Perhaps this was not their intent, but by delivering what we believe to be an incorrect interpretation of the law, an interpretation that serves only to divorce the public from the actions of their government, they exacerbated the situation by giving governments the green light to conduct business in secret.

Giving governments the authority to amend agendas, adding items for discussion or action after a meeting has convened, defeats entirely the purpose of posting an agenda in the first place. The only way around this would be to do away completely with the 24 hour requirement for agendas, and this the Court seems to have accomplished.

Locally, our governments do a pretty good job of notifying the public about meetings and letting the public know what matters they intend to take up. Poor though the Supreme Court’s decision was, we were confident that our local representatives would continue to act in good faith with their citizens. That confidence was tested this week when we failed to receive either notice or an agenda for County Council’s Monday night meeting.

Coming as it did virtually on the heels of the High Court’s ruling, and considering Council has, prior to the Court’s decision, consistently defied a lower court’s ruling that agendas could not be amended, the absence of notice and agenda Monday poured warm water on our dry packet of Powdered Instant Paranoia.

Having spoken with the Chairman, with other Council members and with the Clerk to Council, however, we are at this time satisfied that the incident was simply a technical SNAFU, and not an attempt to take the Supreme Court’s ruling and run with it. We finally received the notice and agenda late Monday afternoon, it should be noted; but the incident did, on the other hand, cause us to take note that, had we never received those documents, there wasn’t a darn thing we could have done about it.

The Chairman has since given us his pledge that County Council would continue to post notices and agendas at least 24 hours in advance. We are glad to hear it. The Supreme Court’s ruling was flawed, of that there can be no doubt; and we are stuck with it at least until the Legislature reconvenes in January. It is our great hope that there is enough support in Columbia to remove any ambiguous language from the FOIA and to include a prohibition against amending agendas with less than 24 hours’ notice.

In the meantime, we would like to hear a similar pledge from our other local governments, reminding us that they don’t need to be reminded to do what is in the best interest of their constituents. Thus far, their actions have spoken for themselves, as we regularly and consistently receive notices and agendas well in advance from the towns of Blythewood, Ridgeway and Winnsboro. The same cannot be said for the Town of Jenkinsville and the Fairfield Memorial Hospital Board. Indeed, there are a great number of boards, committees and commissions in both Blythewood and Fairfield County, some of whom give notice and some of whom from which we receive not so much as a Christmas card. These, too, are public bodies doing public business. They should be doing so in public.