Sunshine Week runs from March 14 – 20 and is a celebration of governmental transparency and access to public information, which is often highlighted by newspapers and news stations serving the state’s cities and towns. Be it a city council meeting or a meeting of any public body covered by the SC Freedom of Information Act, Sunshine Week focuses on the importance of transparency and the value of open government.
As COVID-19 continues to impact the number of attendees at meetings, or moves the audience into a virtual attendance capacity, the importance of transparency and access cannot be understated.
The March 2021 edition of Uptown featured an article on cities’ use of virtual meetings as a way of keeping transparency a priority during the pandemic, including in the Town of Mount Pleasant. In it, Town Administrator Eric DeMoura said that “maintaining transparency throughout this pandemic was of utmost importance as critical decisions were made at a rapid pace and there was some business such as project approvals that needed to proceed … Transparency and access are most important during times of crisis and uncertainty.”
Although transparency and FOIA compliance are critically important in any context for governmental bodies and their meetings, digital meeting options, can create the potential to be more open than ever before, and give residents an opportunity to tune in from home to see their government at work, making decisions that affect their daily lives.
An important aspect of open and transparent government is making sure that governing bodies follow the law when moving from an open forum into executive session. During executive session, a governmental body will generally move from the meeting space to another secured location to talk about issues that need to remain confidential, like human resource discussions, contractual negotiations, or criminal misconduct matters. Parameters for executive session are spelled out in SC Code Section 30-4-70.
The need for executive session should only arise in matters that truly need to remain confidential, as required by FOIA. The law makes public information available when possible and creates requirements for cities to follow in terms of agendas, minutes, and other meeting information.
In South Carolina, the SC Press Association promotes FOIA and the governmental transparency that is the focus of Sunshine Week. By promoting the public’s right to know, the SC Press Association helps to ensure the people have access to information and the government is held to the highest standards. For an overall look at FOIA specifics, see the SC Press Association’s Public Official's Guide to Compliance With South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act.