Choose Wisely

Barring a last-minute write-in miracle on Nov. 18, this Tuesday’s Democratic primary will almost certainly be The Election for Fairfield County Sheriff. The candidates have stumped and speechified, they have littered yards and highways with signs and billboards proclaiming their electability, they have had their faces plastered on nearly everything but milk cartons from Mitford to Ridgeway, and now the voters will have the last word.

No doubt, Fairfield County has five dedicated, qualified, sincere lawmen vying for the County’s top law enforcement position. That’s the good news. The bad news is that makes it a tough choice for Fairfield County voters on Tuesday.

Unless some unforeseen circumstances should arise, circumstances for which, because of their rarity, we do not yet even have a classification or a category, The Independent Voice does not, as a matter of policy, endorse candidates in any race whatsoever. Telling people for whom they should vote is not in our charter. The voters are educated enough, smart enough and savvy enough. They know, typically, excrement when they smell it; and if a dud slips past them here and there, they will be lined up at the polls during the next cycle to offer them a pink slip.

While it should be up to the voters to decide who makes their policies and laws and who enforces them, our job, meanwhile, is to shed light on the key issues and the positions the candidates take on those issues. As far as The Voice is concerned, the one issue that transcends all others – in any race – is transparency and openness.

No government, office or department is going to run completely smoothly 100 percent of the time, and the grease in the cogs of that machinery is transparency. If the public knows what their government is doing, if they have access to all vital and necessary information, then any problems that may arise will correct themselves. In no case is that more important than in law enforcement, where transparency is the line of demarcation between “Protect and Serve” and “Police State.”

Straddling two counties, as we do here at The Independent Voice, gives us a unique perspective into two sheriff’s departments – and how those departments conduct their business could not be more divergent. The Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office has a long and consistent track record of what can only be described as textbook transparency, particularly when it comes to its relationship with the local media. Information is readily and easily available, without having to navigate an obstacle course of files and forms and fees and phone numbers and road blocks. Their counterparts in Richland County, on the other hand, appear to expend extraordinary effort and energy on keeping the public’s nose out of its business. The information is controlled at the top and only meted out in trickles. Are crimes being committed in your neighborhood? Who knows? Incident reports are consistently withheld, and when on the rare occasions they are made available – for a small fee – vital, public information is routinely blacked out, rendering them virtually worthless as anything more than paper airplane material.

All things being equal, the five men on the ballot this Tuesday are each viable candidates, men of the law, with the best of intentions at heart. But if voters carry only one thing with them to the polls next week, it should be how the departments these men currently serve define the word “transparent,” and whether or not they consider the S.C. Freedom of Information Act the law of the land, or just another headache to be avoided, subverted and superseded whenever possible.