Thursday, March 19, 2020

Sunshine Week Shines Light on the Importance of Governmental Transparency

Every March, the newspaper industry and the SC Press Association mark Sunshine Week as a time to focus on governmental transparency and the community value of open access to public information. 

This year’s Sunshine Week comes at a time when the new coronavirus has caused a rapidly advancing list of closures and cancellations in local government and elsewhere. This has led to questions about announcing and conducting public meetings of city and town councils as well as other bodies in compliance with the SC Freedom of Information Act. The Municipal Association has provided guidance on issues such as setting up emergency meetings and how councilmembers can participate in meetings remotely. 

Open government is also the focus of the March issue of Uptown. The issue includes a look at the specific staff members charged with handling FOIA requests in Simpsonville, Clemson and Myrtle Beach. 

Another article explains the changes that came about in the most recent update to South Carolina’s freedom of information law in 2017. This FOIA update specified that information received from local governments in response to a FOIA request cannot be used for commercial solicitation. It also reduced the length of time governments have to respond to FOIA requests. The update added new requirements for how governments may charge fees for the process of searching and making copies of records. 

FOIA requires that the meetings of public bodies must generally be open to the public, after being advertised appropriately, but several exceptions exist to allow for confidentiality that promotes the overall public good. Bodies may therefore enter into executive session, a portion of the meeting that is closed to the public. This Uptown article explains the correct way to enter into executive session and operate during the session, as well as the consequences of misusing executive session. 

For an overall look at FOIA specifics, see the SC Press Association’s Public Official's Guide to Compliance with the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.