Thursday, June 11, 2015

Open government victory in the 2015 legislative session

While news reports during the final days of this legislative session have recounted much of the work that legislators didn’t get done, one bill that did pass was S11. This bill requires public bodies to have an agenda for all regularly scheduled meetings and lays out the procedure for amending an agenda after the meeting begins.

Although having a meeting agenda is a customary practice for cities and towns, this new law makes it mandatory. S11 lays out the circumstances by which an elected body (this means councils, planning commissions or any other body appointed by a council) can add an item to an agenda after the meeting begins. The Municipal Association and the SC Press Association have created a flow chart to explain the process.

The legislation also includes new language regarding posting of agendas for special, called or rescheduled meetings.

All of this came about following a series of decisions in the Lambries v. Saluda County Council case where the Supreme Court ultimately determined that the Freedom of Information Act’s notice provisions do not require an agenda be prepared for a regularly scheduled meeting.

This ruling led the General Assembly this session to clarify the law. Governor Haley signed S11 on June 8, and it is effective immediately.

Last summer following the Supreme Court decision, Association staff began meeting with legislators to hammer out a bill that would address this issue in the early days of the 2015 session. The Association also met with the SC Press Association about the issue and gathered input from municipal officials during the 10 Regional Advocacy Meetings last fall.

The issue of open government was one of the Association’s advocacy initiatives for 2015. Throughout the 2015 legislative session, the Association provided testimony and background information to House and Senate committees about this legislation and in support of the agenda requirement. 

“Although the practice of amending an agenda should be rare, such as in the case of a clerical error or emergency situation, councils need the flexibility in those cases,” said Miriam Hair, executive director of the Municipal Association. “We believe this legislation meets the needs of both the public and the council.”

The Association has developed “best practices” language for councils to use when voting to add an agenda item based on the procedures in S11.

This new agenda requirement will be added to the Municipal Elected Officials Institute’s Freedom of Information Act online class by July 1. The next live session of this class will be held next May.

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