It really is all about you.
In this day and time when so much seems “me” focused, to the point that many of us are turned off and tend to tune out, know that the state’s Freedom of Information Act really is about you and for you.
Simply put, the FOI laws were enacted in an effort to ensure you have unfettered access to what is rightfully yours — public information. With few exceptions, you should be able to know what those who work on behalf of the public — elected and appointed boards and officials — are doing, where they are spending your tax dollars, who they are locking up and the like.
Truly, it is a shame that our states and federal government even had to put freedom of information or “sunshine” laws on the books. But a look at recent news in our state alone tells us otherwise.
Lindsey Hodges recently wrote in the Aiken Standard about a decision in a lawsuit against the city of North Augusta that claims the city violated the Freedom of Information Act “during an action that allocated money toward the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam.”
Judge Clifton B. Newman found that the city, mayor and city council violated the Freedom of Information Act.
In his November 2018 complaint, plaintiff Perry Holcomb said the city violated FOIA when the council amended a resolution during a meeting in which council passed an amendment that allocated funds to the project as part of the city’s Capital Projects Sales Tax initiative.
S.C Code of Laws makes clear that “after the meeting begins, an item upon which action can be taken only may be added to the agenda by a two-thirds vote of the members present and voting; however, if the item is one upon which final action can be taken at the meeting or if the item is one in which there has not been and will not be an opportunity for public comment with prior public notice given in accordance with this section, it only may be added to the agenda by a two-thirds vote of the members present and voting and upon a finding by the body that an emergency or an exigent circumstance exists if the item is not added to the agenda.”
The complaint alleges that council “did not find that there was emergency or exigent circumstances and that Council did not allow for ‘adequate consideration and proper comment by the public beforehand.’”
“The public and the people who make up the public, like Plaintiff Holcomb, have a right to know,” the judge’s order states.
“Taxpayers have a right to know how their government is functioning, They have a right to attend public meetings, to obtain public records at the lowest possible cost and the right to know how the tax money they pay is being spent,” the judge wrote.
Also earlier this month, The State newspaper’s Avery Wilks reported on a lawsuit filed by state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, claiming the state Department of Commerce is withholding public information related to economic development deals.
Specifically, the senator sought records related to deals offered to two companies, Giti, a tire company based in Singapore, and Viva Recycling, based in Moncks Corner.
A day after the suit was filed and only hours after The State published an online story about the suit, Wilks reports, the Commerce Department released the requested records on the recycling business.
The Commerce Department claimed it responded to Harpootlian’s request “in full compliance with the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.”
Harpootlian sought copies of the department’s “correspondence about the two companies, any cost-benefit analyses of the incentive deals and copies of any agreements with the companies,” Wilks reported.
Wilks wrote that “the case could come down to a judge’s interpretation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. That law generally allows S.C. residents to review a public body’s records but makes certain exceptions, protecting records that contain trade secrets or personal information that ‘would constitute unreasonable invasion of privacy.’”
“It’s the public’s right to know how their money is being spent,” Harpootlian told The State. “It’s the most basic concept of a participatory democracy.”
So yes, it really is about you, and about your ability — your right — to know.