South Carolina needs independent groups resolving open-records disputes and investigating ethics complaints against lawmakers, an ethics-reform commission appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley was told at a sparsely attended public hearing Tuesday.
Jay Bender, a Columbia media attorney who represents a number of newspapers and teaches at the University of South Carolina, advocated for better ways to enforce the states open-records law.
Bender told the S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform that the states existing law is good, but that the media and public need a faster way to resolve disputes than going through the courts, which can take years and cost thousands of dollars. About 20 lawsuits are filed over state Freedom of Information Act battles each year.
We have a culture that is willing to accept governmental secrecy, Bender said.
Commission co-chairman Henry McMaster, a former state attorney general, suggested using the administrative law courts, a quasi-judicial executive branch agency that hears contested cases with state agencies, to resolve freedom-of-information conflicts. But Bender said the law would need to be changed to allow that.
Ann Timberlake, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said she wants lawmakers to disclose all their sources of income, including consulting work, and an independent investigative agency to probe legislative ethics cases. The House and Senate now investigate ethics complaints against their own members.
Sometimes, why we get in muddy waters is that we dont have enough separations of power, Timberlake said.
About 10 people came to the hearing roughly the same number as the commissioners in attendance. One couple thought they were attending a meeting about proposed SCE&G electric rate hikes.
This is sad that theres more media people here than concerned citizens, said Craig Adams, a Lexington political consultant, when he spoke to the commission. You all have to figure out why. You know what Im hearing: They all think its all a stage.
Another public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 10. After three more meetings, including hearing testimony from state agency officials, lawmakers and government watchdogs, the commission will submit a report to Haley by Jan. 28.