Public officials hiding information you're entitled to
Never before has it been so easy for our public servants to be transparent about what they do and why. With a few clicks, they can post budgets online and forward emails to citizens showing how they handled an issue.
The week ahead
This week, The Post and Courier explains why state Freedom of Information laws are important to you.
TODAY: Who is ignoring and blatantly violating sunshine laws, and why you should care.
Monday: How technology enables government agencies to provide records -- but avoid providing them as well.
Tuesday: How federal medical-record laws are used as an excuse to hide state records.
Wednesday: S.C. State University continues keeping secrets when transparency is needed.
Thursday: The legal battle over school superintendent evaluations.
Friday: The education of police departments on what the public has a right to know.
Saturday: What happens when residents request public records.
And yet ...
In the past year, police have refused to hand over documents describing employee misconduct; municipalities and school boards have charged citizens thousands of dollars for public records; public panels have ignored laws requiring them to tell people when they're going to meet.
In one bizarre case last summer, the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce blasted "Achy Breaky Heart" and Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas tunes while a sweat-soaked reporter sifted through piles of boxes in a hot warehouse.
"From SLED to local agencies, they're inventing new reasons not to make records public," said Jay Bender, an attorney in Columbia.
Bender is the mustachioed, motorcycle-riding lawyer for the South Carolina Press Association who has spent decades working on cases and legislation to make it easier for the public to see what our elected officials and governments are up to.
The good news, Bender said, is that South Carolina has mostly moved away from a deeply rooted cultural inclination toward secrecy.
"I believe it has to do with the folks who came here from Barbados to set up the colony," he said. "There was a minority white population running a majority black society. So from the earliest days, a small number of people were in charge and told the rest of us what to do."
This mind-set moved from the plantation to the mill village to city and county halls and lasted until the 1970s, he said.
Open-records laws, such as South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act, are based on the idea that citizens make better decisions about their government when they know what their leaders are doing, or not doing.
In 1978 the General Assembly passed the Freedom of Information Act. In its second paragraph, it describes its purpose:
"The General Assembly finds it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached ..."
Since then, most public agencies have made it easier for citizens to learn about budgets, meetings and policy decisions, he said. But some agencies resist, and law enforcement officials are among the worst offenders. "Perhaps it's an authoritarian impulse to say, 'I'm in charge and do as I say.' "
Last week, for instance, after a top Mount Pleasant police commander was charged with driving under the influence, the department initially refused to allow a reporter to view documents describing the officer's commendations, promotions and disciplinary records, and said it would cost $209 for a copy of the redacted file. The department later relented.
In January, Seneca police refused to release information about why they fired or demoted four officers in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.
In recent years, the South Carolina Highway Patrol had routinely refused to release videotapes of arrests, including one in 2010 of a Greenwood city councilwoman. A court last year told the agency to comply with the law. Closer to home, a Charleston police commander recently wrote an internal memo instructing officers how to hide information from reports.
Educators are another problem group, Bender said.
South Carolina State University, which has had its share of management issues in recent years, initially refused to release President George Cooper's performance evaluation. Cooper announced his resignation March 2 amid an investigation into criminal allegations.
The Berkeley County School District resisted releasing school board evaluations of its superintendent by cloaking the documents in attorney- client privilege. (The Post and Courier sued the district and eventually won in 2011 after a nearly four-year legal battle that reached the S.C. Supreme Court.)
Reporters often find themselves in the middle of Freedom of Information Act fights because of their watchdog role, but citizens also use the act and run into the same kinds of roadblocks.
When Alberta Wasden filed a request to the town of Swansea to find out how a town of 500 people could end up nearly $500,000 in debt, they told her it would cost $10,000 to search and copy documents.
But that's chump change compared to Lexington- Richland District 5's response to a request. When asked for its email records from school board members and administrators, the district said it would cost $550,000.
Several years ago, Marcia Rosenberg of Charleston wanted to know more about the state veterinarian board after she said her cat Pumpkin was mistreated by a local vet who had been sanctioned in another state.
When the board barred her from a meeting, she made a vow to force the board to become more transparent. She attended every meeting and submitted so many FOIA requests that the board found it easier to put their documents online. Now you can find in seconds whether your veterinarian has violated state laws.
"The existing vet board is a thousand times better now than it was in 2000," she said.
Some agencies hope people like Rosenberg will lose interest and go away.
The Nerve, an online news organization in Columbia, has battled the S.C. Research Authority over its delays in fulfilling requests, including one that languished for more than seven months.
Because of stories like these, Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, introduced an amendment to strengthen the state Freedom of Information Act by putting a lid on costs and the time it takes an agency to supply documents.
"It's a human tendency to want to hide things, but we work for the people, and they have a right to know how their government functions," Taylor said.
Other elected officials, meanwhile, are trying to make it harder to get information from public agencies. In 2008, the General Assembly passed a law exempting state pension records from being released to the public, even though the companies that run these funds earn hundreds of millions of dollars a year in fees.
The state's $28 billion fund has a shortage of $13 billion. Other states make their records public.
This year, Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Summerville, introduced legislation to further restrict information that law enforcement officials give out about crimes, even though the act already allows police to withhold information if it would harm an investigation.
In the end, automation could help citizens and governments. Several federal agencies studied the costs of FOIA requests and estimateed that automating and standardizing the way requests are handled could save the federal government $200 million a year.
Anderson and Aiken counties put vast amounts of data and records on their county websites, including information on every check that's written. Those two counties received an A-plus Thursday from Sunshine Review, a nonprofit organization that tracks government transparency. (Charleston and Dorchester counties earned C-minuses, and Berkeley got a C.)
Taylor said officials from small towns sometimes grumble that they don't have the staff or computer know-how to put public documents online. But that's no excuse, he said.
"I tell them, 'Welcome to the new brave world. Learn how to make a PDF. Get a scanner and put it on the Web.' If they do this, they'll have fewer FOIA requests, and we'll get to a culture that believes this is the public's business."