Sprinkler shock: Pay up or get out

Walter Carr, owner of Climate Masters Indoor Storage in Hanahan, received a letter from Charleston Water System officials stating that if he didn't want to pay his monthly sprinkler-system fee, he could disconnect his system.

MYRTLE BEACH -- The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce responded to a public records request from a newspaper on how it spent taxpayer money with 50 boxes of jumbled records.

The chamber made a reporter from The Sun News of Myrtle Beach review the records in an un-air-conditioned warehouse as music including "Achy Breaky Heart" and the Chipmunk's Christmas song blared over a loudspeaker and a forklift operator moved boxes a few feet away. The newspaper said many of the documents appeared irrelevant to the request.

The newspaper asked the chamber for records pertaining to any work paid for with public money under the state's Freedom of Information Act. The documents the newspaper reviewed over three hours included blank sheets of paper, Horry County news releases about a public hearing on fireworks and an internal email about a chamber office's voice mail problems.

When The Sun News sent questions about the documents and the conditions in the warehouse to Myrtle Beach Chamber President Brad Dean, a lawyer for the chamber, Cherie Blackburn, sent back a cease-and-desist letter, threatening legal action for what she wrote was an "unlawful campaign against the chamber."

The newspaper's lawyer said those accusations are false.

"The manner in which the chamber responded to the FOIA request suggests a deliberate attempt to impede the newspaper's examination of how public money transferred to the chamber is expended. I would hope that you could explain to your client that its actions would cause reasonable citizens to wonder if public money is being misspent," wrote Jay Bender, who also represents the South Carolina Press Association.

In the chamber's July newsletter, Dean wrote an article saying the information the newspaper is asking for is already in quarterly reports posted on the chamber's website. The information includes vendor names, how much they were paid and a general description of the goods or services bought.

But Bender said anything can be posted on the Internet.

"There are sheriff's deputies pretending to be 13-year-old girls online," Bender said. "You want to see the chamber's backup documentation. Would something the city puts online be adequate documentation for an auditor coming in to audit the city's finances?"

In the newsletter article, Dean also said the chamber spent nearly 3,000 hours and more than $50,000 in private money to copy the documents. The article didn't mention The Sun News by name, referring instead to "a local media organization."

Dean also apologized to chamber members, calling the newspaper's records request an unjustified waste of time, supplies and effort.