Half-hearted FOI reform

The South Carolina Statehouse. (Grace Beahm/File)

A legislative session that was most notable for how little it accomplished followed suit on issues regarding open, transparent government.

In what should be considered a victory, a new South Carolina law will do what many thought was already called for and had thus been doing for years. It requires public bodies to have agendas. Further, the agenda may be changed only with proof of emergency circumstances and two thirds of the body agreeing to the changes.

Many public bodies were surprised when the S.C. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that those bodies didn’t need to announce agendas in advance of public meetings. It was an unfortunate recognition of a shortcoming in the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

It’s a rule that public bodies should have been following all along, and many were. Before the Supreme Court ruled, the state Court of Appeals came to the same conclusion, but added that the spirit of the FOIA was to provide advance notice of “substantive public matters” to be considered and that this purpose cannot be achieved if an agenda is amended at the meeting or during a 24-hour notice period.

Without agendas published in advance, the public would have little way of knowing when a subject of interest would be discussed. And public input is key to good government. It can inform elected officials and result in better decisions.

The more people are involved, the more they know about the issues. And the more they know, the wiser their input. And ultimately their votes.

Conversely, the Legislature failed on an important freedom of information bill that would have made public the cause and manner of death as declared on autopsy reports.

The Senate passed a bill, but it languished in the House for no apparent reason, allowing some secrets that need to be made public to go silently to the grave.

The case that precipitated the discussion involved 25-year-old Aaron Jacobs, who was shot to death by police in 2010.

Initially police said Jacobs fired on officers. When The Sumter Item requested the autopsy report from the (publicly elected) Sumter County coroner, he refused to release it. The Item sued him.

When the newspaper did obtain the autopsy report from a different source, it showed that Mr. Jacobs had no gunshot residue on his hands, and that he had been shot in the back.

This was one clear case for making autopsies public. But as the public is becoming more and more suspicious about police behavior, openness and concrete factual information are ever more important both to ferret out problem officers and to clear the air about the majority who are doing things by the book.

Authorities hid behind concern for the victim’s privacy. But the public is justified in concluding that authorities were more interested in hiding information than in protecting Mr. Jacobs’ privacy.

A bill that would limit response time for agencies that have received FOI requests passed the House but went nowhere in the Senate. It should be revived next year.

Some legislators were concerned that smaller agencies could not meet the deadline, but in reality, the proposed limit was more than reasonable. The public body would have to respond to the request in 10 days, but could take another 30 days to turn over the documents.

It would also establish a process whereby FOIA disputes are settled by a hearing officer under the Administrative Law Court. Now, people with a complaint about non-compliance to the FOIA have to hire a lawyer and wait for the case to be heard by a Circuit Court judge.

It shouldn’t be so difficult to pass laws that ensure public information is accessible to the public, whom the legislators are elected to serve.