COLUMBIA — If rank-and-file South Carolinians want reform of the state’s widely criticized ethics laws and enforcement, they aren’t showing it with their turnout to public meetings at the Capitol.
Fewer than 10 members of the public showed up for a Tuesday evening meeting of the Gov. Nikki Haley-created S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform.
It was the group’s first formal meeting, one designed to gather input from the public on how to overhaul the Palmetto State’s ethics system.
The planned five-minute time limit for speakers was cast aside. The 90-minute-plus meeting would have been over in a half-hour had it been enforced.
“There’s more media people here than there are concerned citizens. You have to figure it out,” Craig Adams, a self-described political activist from Lexington County, told the group.
Adams said people he has talked to believe the focus on ethics reform by the commission and similar reform-labeled study groups is “all a show.”
Travis Medlock, a former S.C. attorney general and co-chairman of the commission, said he wasn’t concerned by the tepid reception.
“We didn’t expect many people to show up,” he said. “We just didn’t think the subject matter would be stimulating to the general public.”
Still, he thinks the commission will be able to offer a substantial package of reforms. Whether they get passed will be entirely up to the Legislature, which itself has no fewer than three separate groups studying ethics reform.
A meeting a few weeks ago of the S.C. House Democrats’ version of an ethics study panel had similarly poor attendance. A House GOP ethics study group drew slightly better turnout, more attendees than the other two meetings combined.
Republicans, who control both houses of the Legislature, will be able to steer what reforms get passed when the session begins in January.
Medlock said those who did show up Tuesday offered some valuable ideas. Commissioners spent the most time talking to Jay Bender, the state’s leading expert on the S.C. Freedom of Information Act and an attorney for the S.C. Press Association.
Before rattling off a string of cases in which he said the open-records law was abused, Bender told commissioners that they are “swimming upstream” against the current of the state’s political culture.
As for specific reform suggestions, Bender said an administrative-executive branch agency, perhaps the State Ethics Commission, should be tasked with ruling on disputed FOIA cases.
He said litigating such cases through the court system is expensive and drags on for months and years.
The Ethics Commission has seen its funding cut dramatically in recent years. Bender said allocating the commission’s budget for several years at a time could help insulate it from political pressure, while Medlock offered up the idea of tying the commission’s funding to population growth.
The commission will meet again next month.