South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act is 35 years old.
You'd think by now people would have a little better understanding of it.
Look no further than the ridiculous circumstances the Sun News staff went through to get some public records recently. Reporters at the Myrtle Beach newspaper had to go through dozens of unorganized, haphazardly piled boxes of documents (conveniently stacked in a warehouse with no air-conditioning), just to find out how the Myrtle Beach chamber of commerce is spending taxpayer money.
It's one thing to store your personal receipts in a jumbled mess in a shoebox, but it's quite another for an agency that receives public funds to behave that way.
In light of that, maybe it's no surprise that the board at S.C. State University is confused about what the law means. On Tuesday, the S.C. State Board of Trustees voted to keep President George Cooper's next evaluation private.
When the evaluation comes due Sept. 1, the only people who will see it are Cooper and the board -- and in a stroke of bureaucratic excess, a committee formed to evaluate Cooper.
Sorry, that's not how this works.
Taxpayer money pays Cooper's salary. Therefore, his salary is public information, and his job performance is in direct interest of the taxpayers.
Apparently the board decided it doesn't need to share this information, without regard to the law.
Jay Bender, attorney for the South Carolina Press Association, told reporter Diane Knich that if the board creates the document, it's public, and therefore, "Failure to release it would be illegal."
The State Budget and Control Board has a database of everyone paid with state funds who earns $50,000 or more a year. There are 287 employees at S.C. State who fit that category, and Cooper is the fifth highest-paid person there, with a yearly salary of $144,911, not counting $55,000 that he gets from the University Advancement Foundation. So, it's not unreasonable to expect to know how he's doing.
Especially in this situation, where Cooper has already been fired from his position once.
For a school that has had, to put it mildly, some problems with public perception (yes, looking at you, Transportation Center), this is a step in the wrong direction.
The board made this decision not only to keep the evaluation private but to keep individual board members from trying to share the information with the public, which at least one person did with Cooper's previous evaluation.
Our own attorney general, Alan Wilson, in his introduction to the most recent version of the S.C. FOIA, says the following: "The Attorney General's Office uses and recommends the following FOIA guidelines: When in doubt, disclose requested information …When in doubt, release the document."
That really couldn't be any clearer.
Melanie Balog is The Post and Courier's Digital Editor.