COLUMBIA — South Carolinians face major hurdles in the pursuit of public information, according to a pair of recently released national reports that give poor marks to the Palmetto State.
A report by the State Integrity Investigation ranked South Carolina as the worst state in the country for access to public records.
The state earned its “F” rating due to the lack of options residents have outside of the court system for appealing a denied request for information, and the absence of an agency or entity that monitors the application of freedom of information law.
Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association and a law professor at the University of South Carolina, participated in the group’s investigation.
He said Thursday that while the state’s legal deficiencies cited in the report are a problem, the root issue is a far-reaching culture of secrecy in South Carolina government.
Bender said the tradition first took hold in the colonial period when a “thin band of elites” were running the state.
“We took that cultural model directly from the plantation to the mill village, and in many ways, that remains the dominant political culture in South Carolina,” he said.
“We still have a culture where people in office and people running our public institutions are convinced that they know best and can make decisions without public information and knowledge.”
John Crangle, executive director of the government watchdog group S.C. Common Cause, said the weakness of the state’s open records law gives public officials little incentive to turn over records.
“Unless you have a real iron hammer involved in the process, these agencies are not going to feel they have to comply,” he said.
A bill that transparency advocates said would have sharpened the teeth of the state’s open records law died during this year’s legislative session after S.C. Sen. John Scott, D-Columbia, placed a legislative block on the measure.
Bender said passage of the legislation would have been a good start, but a culture of compliance can’t be expected to immediately take hold even if such a reform passes.
South Carolina also fared poorly in a report by the nonprofit transparency advocacy group Sunshine Review.
The group looked at what information was available on state and local government websites in 31 states.
Of those states, South Carolina’s sc.gov website ranked 28th in transparency.
The group found the site has an ineffective search function, lacks comprehensive budgets or budget summaries and no information is available on taxpayer-funded lobbying.
The Nerve, the reporting arm of the libertarian-leaning S.C. Policy Council, recently reported that several state agencies together spent at least $700,000 on lobbying last fiscal year.
The Sunshine Review investigation said another problem with the state government website is the absence of comprehensive information, forms or contacts for making open-records requests.
The group also looked at the websites of the state’s five-largest counties.
Charleston County’s site fared the best of the group, earning a “B.”
The only issues holding the county’s site back are problems with accessing procurement agreements and bids, along with missing information on any taxpayer-funded lobbying associations, the report said.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.