COLUMBIA — South Carolina elected officials aren’t the only ones wading into the debate over ethics reform. The S.C. Press Association, which represents newspapers in the state, is asking local officials and state lawmakers to sign a “transparency pledge.”
By signing the pledge, officials would, among other things, agree to provide public records in a timely manner with minimal costs, discuss only legally justified items in executive session and agree that discussions of government business by personal email, text message or other electronic means are public records and should be readily available for public access.
The State Integrity Investigation report released by the Center for Public Integrity this year ranked the Palmetto State worst in the country for public access to information.
Press association Executive Director Bill Rogers said the lack of commitment to transparency by elected officials is “an escalating problem.”
“The root of it is trying to address ongoing problems across the state,” he said of the transparency pledge campaign launched last week.
Trisha O’Connor, chairwoman of the association’s Freedom of Information Committee and former executive editor of the Myrtle Beach Sun News, said the language in the state’s open-records law hasn’t been updated since the 1990s, and it has flaws.
Among them is a lack of specifics that directly address electronic communication by officials, she said.
“We’re all seeing the use of new media is providing public officials means to have conversations about public business in private,” O’Connor said.
Rogers blames officials’ lack of compliance with the Freedom of Information Act on two factors.
“Some bow to leadership, such as a school board chair or mayor, and some aren’t aware of it,” he said.
The press association is encouraging members to distribute the pledge to local officials, then publish the names of those who have signed.
The association’s campaign comes as state lawmakers are crafting ethics-reform proposals to be introduced during next year’s legislative session.
Gov. Nikki Haley offered up a series of proposals last month that includes eliminating the exemption in the state’s FOI law for state legislators’ correspondence.
An effort to eliminate the loophole died in the Senate during this year’s legislative session after the proposal was attached to a measure that would have dramatically strengthened the state’s open-records law.
The bill by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, would have reduced costs public bodies can charge in response to open-records requests, forced bodies to make certain records available for immediate inspection and put an end to more than month-long waits for public information.
Taylor will reintroduce a version of the measure next year.
And he said GOP Rep. Rick Quinn of Lexington has agreed not to attach the amendment eliminating the legislative exemption to the bill.
That amendment concerned several legislators, who argued that messages sent to lawmakers by their constituents concerning sensitive issues shouldn’t be made public, before the bill ultimately failed in the Senate.
Taylor, a former reporter, praised the press group’s campaign. “I personally like the initiative that the press association is following here,” he said. “I like it because if the news media is doing its job correctly, it is supposed to be the fourth branch of government.”
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.