If you keep up with how things work in South Carolina, you understand the need for accountability in government. In a state tarnished by Statehouse corruption and other local and statewide scandals, it’s clear that more transparency is needed to restore the public’s trust.
That’s where the Freedom of Information Act plays a vital role. It provides citizens with a tool, backed up by law, to obtain documents and information from their government. Reporters use it regularly to bring actions to light, but every citizen should know the FOIA grants them the same access.
At present, the South Carolina Supreme Court is considering whether a private nonprofit group that receives accommodations tax funds is subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The case arose from a dispute between a businessman and the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
State tourism promotion groups contend that being subject to South Carolina’s open-records law could put them at a competitive disadvantage with other states. No doubt the fine people who market our beautiful cities to the world have done an excellent job. But that “disadvantage” claim falls short, unless tourism officials truly have discovered a magic marketing formula that merits protection through state-sanctioned secrecy. There are already enough problems with public access without erecting more barriers.
The problem in Hilton Head and in a similar case in Myrtle Beach is largely of their own making. In both places, the functions of a convention and visitors bureau, a nonprofit tourism promoter, are blended into the structure of a chamber of commerce — a membership organization that advocates for local businesses, sometimes representing their interests in political matters.
That set-up creates a mix of public funding and political work under the same umbrella. That’s a compelling reason to require accountability and compliance with the FOIA law.
The Legislature could settle the issue itself, though that battle might be pushed off until next year. A measure sponsored by Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Beaufort, would require any nonprofit that receives more than $100 in public funds to submit a quarterly report to the source of the money. But in nearly the same breath, the bill also would exempt the nonprofit from having to comply with FOIA disclosure requirements, effectively weakening the law under a veneer of transparency.
Lawmakers should reject the bill.
As for the pending Supreme Court decision, the justices should affirm the lower-court ruling and recognize that the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton chamber is subject to the open-records law. Let’s not set a bad example by carving out special exemptions for groups that accept taxpayer money.
These issues have garnered the most attention recently and will get particular review as this year’s Sunshine Week gets underway. But we should remember the day-to-day struggles for transparency, recognizing that governments sometimes try to skirt the law or put up roadblocks by making major decisions behind closed doors, redacting information or withholding it when they shouldn’t. Or requiring formal, written FOIA requests for simple info that’s clearly public.
The Post and Courier and other media outlets also continue to wage a court battle after the Legislature’s Republican Caucus denied requests for records related to the ongoing Statehouse probe. The GOP’s argument is based on a House rule passed in 2007 exempting its caucuses from the FOIA. The logic is truly dizzying that such groups contend they don’t have to comply with a state law because of an exception they carved out for themselves.
In an era in which some politicians try to discredit reporting from legitimate news sources, it’s important that citizens can engage in their own fact finding. After all, what could be more democratic than citizens holding their government accountable?