Thursday, September 3, 2015

Letting the sunshine in

By Tiger Wells, Government Affairs Liaison
All states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have laws that are popularly referred to as “Sunshine Laws,” a name that invokes the image of curtains being thrown open allowing light to enter and illuminate an otherwise dark room.

In South Carolina, the state’s sunshine law, the SC Freedom of Information Act, requires that every public body, from departments of the state to municipal governing bodies and their various committees open their meetings and records to the public.

The Municipal Association understands that there is truth in the old adage “In the absence of information, people will assume the worst.” The lost trust that can result from a lack of transparency can lead to strained relationships between city leaders and their constituents, which can in turn make governing efficiently and effectively very difficult.

With this in mind, the Association provides multiple FOIA-related training classes and articles for municipal elected officials and staff.

The Association also frequently directs its members to the SC Press Association’s great handbook explaining the Act in easy-to-understand language.

Recent actions by the General Assembly and the SC Supreme Court have resulted in changes to the way public bodies provide meeting notice, the procedure followed when adding items to meeting agendas and the procedure followed when entering executive session.

S11, signed into law in June, outlines how a public body can add items to its meeting agenda after the meeting has been called to order. It’s a somewhat complicated process, so the Association worked with the SC Press Association to create a flowchart that outlines very specifically the process a council must use. The new law also requires cities to post meeting notices and agendas on their websites, if they have one.

A recent Supreme Court ruling addresses the specific purpose requirement that a public body must satisfy when entering executive session.

Both of these actions mean councils may need to adjust their processes for posting meeting agendas and entering executive session. 

Part of the fall Regional Advocacy Meetings is focused on training about these actions. To learn more, read the Uptown articles about these two actions in the August/September issue, and look for an updated version of the Municipal Elected Officials Institute of Government FOIA class coming this fall.

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