A poorly written state law allows public bodies to sneak actions through without the public knowing.
But a recent S.C. Supreme Court ruling to that effect should not be seen as permission to diminish the people's right to know how their business is being conducted.
The issue is agendas for regular meetings. Until now, most interpretations of the Freedom of Information Act called for public bodies to publish agendas before all meetings. That way citizens can show up at meetings prepared to provide meaningful input.
The Supreme Court, however, read the law to say that agendas do not need to be published in advance for regular meetings. Actually they don't need to be drawn up at all.
Clearly an act designed to ensure transparency by public officials didn't intend that. And certainly the Legislature needs to put fixing the language at the top of its own agenda for next session.
Meanwhile, however, this is an opportunity for the public to watch closely and determine which of their representative government bodies - city and county councils and school boards, for example - continue publishing agendas ahead of time, and which use the excuse to avoid citizens' scrutiny.
Indeed, those public bodies could reassure their constituents that they intend to be transparent by requiring themselves to draw up agendas and publish them early enough so that people can speak on subjects of interest to them. Most have been doing so for years.
The Municipal Association of South Carolina is telling cities to keep publishing agendas because they help the public know what is happening and help council members prepare for meetings.
"The best practice is in the interest of public information and transparency to not change the current practices," said association spokeswoman Reba Campbell.
The same Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies to publish agendas in advance of specially called meetings. Logic dictates that regular meetings warrant the same treatment.
Citizens often attend meetings regarding zoning in their neighborhoods or ordinances regulating their businesses, for example. They might not feel compelled to speak up about a zoning change across town or new teacher training for a school outside of their attendance lines.
Without advance notification of a body's plans for action, people could well miss their chance to give their opinions, and public bodies could miss their chance to listen and make more informed decisions.
In short, the city or county or school district could suffer as much as its constituents.
And South Carolina's reputation could be tarnished even more. Already the Center for Public Integrity gives the state an "F" for accountability. And despite lots of bluster and lofty promises, the General Assembly has yet again failed to bolster ethics laws that pertain to its members.
Requiring public bodies to inform the people about what business they will be addressing is a basic tenet of good government. As soon as possible, state lawmakers should ensure that it happens.
Meanwhile, those public bodies should do the right thing and keep the public in the know.
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