When a suspect died while being chased by St. Stephen police, the town’s police chief said he couldn’t release a video of the pursuit until an investigation of the incident was finished.
Chief John Waters then turned around and filed a Freedom of Information Act request with The Post and Courier, saying the law required the newspaper to turn over all emails it had received regarding his department.
The November episode illustrates the misunderstanding and misconceptions that some public officials have about the state’s Freedom of Information Act, despite the fact that the open records law has been on the books since the 1970s.
“It’s a constant challenge here, and old habits die hard,” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association.
Waters couldn’t be reached last week to further explain his stance.
Today is the start of Sunshine Week, which will highlight the importance of the open records law.
The law aims to promote transparency in government and make it possible for residents to follow the activities of public officials and bodies at a minimum cost or delay.
But time and again, public servants and their agencies across South Carolina have run afoul of the state’s so-called Sunshine Law by holding illegal meetings, withholding public documents or discussing the public’s business behind closed doors.
Whether done out of ignorance or defiance of the law, the end result is often the same: The public is left in the dark.
The Municipal Association of South Carolina has been working with the state press association to educate local leaders about the importance of the Sunshine Law and its nuances, distributing guides and holding regular training sessions. But with election turnover, it’s a constant challenge to bring people up to speed on the law’s requirements, Reba Campbell, the organization’s deputy executive director, said.
“The rules don’t change that often, but the people do,” she said. “It’s not that people are out to hide things. Often, they just haven’t had proper training.”
Still, examples of apparent violations can be found in every corner of the state.
Take Beaufort, where the county school board recently kept citizens out of a closed-door meeting to select finalists for the superintendent’s post. Or consider Atlantic Beach, where the town manager was convicted in January of assaulting a citizen who demanded to see a municipal contract. Or look to Greenwood, where school officials waited 60 days to deny a request for emails and complaints about an employee’s resignation.
Closer to home, state Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, drew criticism late last year when he held a telephone poll to make an appointment to the Charleston County Aviation Authority. Limehouse, who is now running for Congress, said past appointments were handled in a similar fashion, but FOIA experts countered that such official actions can’t be hashed out over the phone.
Area school boards also have been accused of skirting open meeting laws by not giving adequate descriptions for their executive session items, leaving the public with little idea of what’s actually going on.
A February agenda for Dorchester School District 2, for example, lists the reason for a closed session simply as “contractual, personnel.” The Charleston County school board also failed to let the public know in November that it planned to meet in private to discuss the controversial rental of a school building to a board member’s church.
Above the law?
Getting information out of police also can be a chore at times in South Carolina.
“They act like they are above the law when it comes to the release of public information,” Jay Bender, attorney for the state press association, said.
Consider the fact that two years after Eutawville’s police chief shot a man to death in the parking lot of Town Hall, no official report has been filed explaining his actions.
The closest the public has to a document from the May 2011 shooting is a report from Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office that reads: “On the above date and times, this deputy responded to the Eutawville Town Hall.”
Or consider this one-line report issued last year in connection with the investigation of an assault complaint involving a candidate for sheriff in Oconee County: “Officers were dispatched to the incident location in reference to an incident that occurred.”
Charleston area law enforcement agencies are generally fairly prompt about providing information on crimes and other incidents, though some can be a little heavy-handed in withholding details the public is entitled to. Folly Beach police, for example, have blacked out names of suspects and victims, along with addresses and other details, from incident reports.
Signs of change
That’s not to say that the news is all bad. One bright spot, Bender said, is a bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken. to strengthen the state’s freedom of information law.
Taylor’s measure would reduce the time public bodies have to respond to citizens’ open records requests, limit fees, set stronger penalties for non-compliance, and create a new appeal process for records disputes for citizens and public bodies through the state’s Administrative Law Court.
The bill passed the House last year but died in the Senate.
Some area officials and agencies have made strides in recent months to improve transparency and public access to information.
Last year, Charleston police caught flack for hiding crime details in supplemental reports that they refused to release to the public. The incident reports they did provide, at times, consisted of no more than a single sentence with no description of what occurred.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen pledged to do a better job, and he has. The department now routinely provides detailed supplemental reports in a timely fashion with no argument.
What’s more, the city launched an Internet portal called P2C (police-to-citizen) which allows people to track arrests and incidents daily across the city. You also can make a Google map of the incidents found in your search.
“The feedback has been very positive about it, and it helps people stay up to speed about what is going on in the community,” Mullen said.
Mullen said police hope to add more features, including crime prevention information. Police are considering posting full incident reports as well, if they can find a way to protect sensitive information, such as the identity of rape victims. Accident reports are already available online.
“We want to put more information out there,” Mullen said. “We are definitely moving in that direction.”
Myrtle Beach use a similar online system and have been posting their incident reports for the past year, Capt. David Knipes, the department’s public information officer, said. Knipes said the software can be easily programmed to automatically redact Social Security numbers and other personal information from the online reports.
Knipes said the system has proven very popular with citizens, has generated no complaints and has freed his office from chasing down reports for the media and others.
Charleston and Berkeley counties have also made it easier for citizens to search online for inmates at their respective jails. Charleston County’s website also allows visitors to review daily jail logs to see who has been booked in and on what charges.
The Charleston County Aviation Authority, which has been knocked in the past for unnecessary secrecy and closed-door sessions, has also adopted a more transparent posture under new chairman Andy Savage, a local lawyer.
In the past, Savage said, the board has gone into executive session without giving people a good reason why, and sometimes the discussions have veered into matters that probably should have been aired in the public. That will change, he said.
“Philosophically, I think the public’s business ought to be done in public except in very rare instances,” he said. “If you have commitment and pride in the decisions you make, then let the public know what you are doing.”