The Post and Courier’s recent series on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) highlighted one of the most important, and least appreciated, characteristics of a free society — the ability ordinary citizens should have to learn, without filters, what government is doing for them and, potentially, to them. Reinforcing The Post and Courier’s findings, the State Integrity Assessment, a project of Public Radio International, the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, gave South Carolina an “F” for government transparency.
As James Madison said two centuries ago, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”
The Post and Courier’s series revealed that compliance with the Freedom of Information Act is troublingly inconsistent in South Carolina. We would like to offer some recent examples of our experiences attempting to obtain information from the South Carolina State Ports Authority (SPA). These instances reinforce the fact that our state is far from the open, transparent government that our country’s founders believed was essential to a healthy democracy.
The State Ports Authority has consistently argued that the proposed cruise ship terminal on Union Pier is the highest and best use for that property and that it has positive financial implications for the agency and for the public.
More than two years ago, we asked SPA director Jim Newsome for the documentation supporting that claim. Specifically, we asked for their projections of cruise ship revenues and expenses. Additionally, we asked for the analysis of alternative terminal sites the SPA claimed to have conducted. Months later, we received nothing in response.
Consequently, over the past two years we have submitted various FOIA requests detailing the information we would like to see. The information we have requested should help the public better understand the SPA’s decisions, and should also round out the debate on the costs and benefits of vastly increased cruise operations in Charleston.
On March 1, 2010, we asked for pro forma financial statements on the cruise ship terminal. On March 15, 2010, we requested the terminal construction schedule, and on May 7, 2010, in conjunction with the South Carolina Policy Council and the Charleston Mercury, we asked for contracts with cruise lines that visit Charleston, financial information on Union Pier cargo and cruise operations, lobbying expenses, payments to the Charleston Police Department and other information related to cruise operations.
The SPA told us much of the information we asked for was “privileged” and that they estimated that our fee would be $13,535 for the rest. (Part of the fee included research by the agency to determine what was privileged.) We subsequently reduced our request and resubmitted it. The agency again responded that much of the information was privileged and that they would not waive the fee. For the benefit of the public, this response is a serious problem — the SPA was refusing even to provide the year Carnival’s contract would end.
On Feb. 17, 2011, in conjunction with the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Southern Environmental Law Center, we made a similar, but further abbreviated, request for information about the Union Pier project.
The SPA’s response stated “most of the documents, unfortunately, are not maintained in a manner that is conducive to search by nonemployees, but require research and review of documents for responsiveness to the request, and assembly of responsive documents.” Further, they believed, some of the documents would end up being privileged anyway.
On July 25, 2011, after the SPA launched a publicity campaign designed to characterize citizens concerned about unmitigated cruise ships as “snobs” who were opposed to “jobs,” we asked for invoices from and communications with the SPA’s public relations’ firm, Rawle-Murdy.
The response we received was incomplete, and omitted a memo about a meeting between Jim Newsome, Mayor Joe Riley and Carnival Cruise Lines executives in Miami. We asked for, but have still not received, that document.
Regardless of one’s opinion about the wisdom of unregulated cruise activity in Charleston, it is indisputable that a public agency responsible for the wise investment of public funds has an obligation to justify, clearly and comprehensively, its decision to taxpayers.
At the very least, the agency should provide the documentation underlying its decisions and actions to interested citizens.
That is the simple premise behind the Freedom of Information Act.
It is unfortunate, and unacceptable, that the SPA does not recognize the central importance of transparency as we debate the future of the Port of Charleston.
Katie Zimmerman is project manager for the Coastal Conservation League.