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.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

2020 Census Day Is Almost Here

In a few weeks, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, will arrive — the measurement date for the 2020 Census. April is also when the U.S. Census Bureau is scheduled to release its estimates of 2019 population numbers. 

Next, the Census Bureau will conduct follow-up efforts through July, aimed at improving the accuracy of the count. Many local governments in South Carolina have created Complete Count Committees to improve response rates. Existing estimates show that this census will be a significant one for South Carolina. The 2010 Census counted 4.6 million people living in South Carolina, a number that grew to about 5.1 million by the 2018 estimate. 

Municipal governments have a huge interest in making sure every resident is counted, and they can stay involved up to and even after Census Day. Data from the 2020 Census will contribute to many funding decisions. At the federal level, the numbers will help to determine who receives billions of dollars of funding for areas like transportation, healthcare and education. The data also drives South Carolina’s Local Government Fund allocations. 

2020 Census resources 

Thursday, March 5, 2020

What City Officials Should Know About the New Coronavirus

Most municipalities have disaster plans in place for floods, tornadoes or hurricanes. Yet outbreaks in recent years of flu strains as well as the new coronavirus, have led many city leaders to adjust their disaster plans or create new ones that would allow city services to keep running in the event of a pandemic. 

When a pandemic strikes, people in many areas become ill at the same time. It is the responsibility of state and local governments to continue providing services to the public while stemming the spread of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

In South Carolina, city governments have no direct responsibility for vaccinations, education or public health functions. Yet city leaders still need to have policies in place to provide both regular services and reassurances to residents, even if a majority of the city employees are affected by the pandemic. 

Most municipalities are keeping a close watch on coronavirus developments, and making sure their employees are taking steps to stay healthy. Local governments have been stressing the importance of individual infection control measures, such as washing hands frequently and using sanitizers and proper cough etiquette. 

If a pandemic strikes, the key to slowing its spread is to reduce or eliminate contact with sick individuals. Many municipalities are encouraging sick employees to stay home. 

While health officials continue to monitor outbreaks of the coronavirus, there is always a risk that the situation could change quickly in South Carolina. Health officials urge local governments to continue to promote healthy practices to prevent spreading the illness and to have a plan in place for worst-case scenarios. 

DHEC Resources 

Additional Resources 

The Association will post additional resources as they become available to our website.