Opinion

FOI violations are an affront to public

Both Jim Baker and Marc Sosne appear to be eminently qualified for the jobs they were hired for last week. But the governing bodies that hired them owe their constituents an apology for skirting laws designed to ensure that the public is adequately informed about the actions of its elected officials.

Jim Baker, a St. Louis, Mo., county administrator, was hired last week as the new York County manager. The county has been without a full-time manager since December, when Al Green abruptly resigned, and we have high hopes that Baker will be able to bring new stability to the county's operations.

Baker has worked for St. Louis County, which boasts more than 1 million residents, for the past 27 years. He turned down several other offers to take this job, saying he and his wife are excited about moving to this part of the country and that he is "anxious to be in an area where I could make a difference." He also said that he is not daunted by infighting on the council and thinks he can be a unifying force.

By all appearances, he seems to have the experience and knowledge to serve as county manager. We think the County Council made a good choice.

Marc J. Sosne also was hired last week. He will be the new superintendent of the Clover school district. Sosne, now serving as a superintendent-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, previously served for eight years as superintendent of the Pender County school district in North Carolina. He also has served as superintendent in Washington County and as assistant superintendent in New Hanover County school district and the Scotland County school district, both in North Carolina.

Sosne, who has been honored several times by educational organizations for his administrative skills, also appears to have the experience necessary to serve the Clover school district. The Clover school board also appears to have made a good choice.

Our gripe? The two governing bodies conducted much of the process of selecting Baker and Sosne behind closed doors.

South Carolina's Freedom of Information laws are neither complicated nor too restrictive. They are designed essentially to do one thing: Make sure citizens know what their elected officials are up to when they act in a public capacity.

The rules require that, when hiring someone for a public post, elected officials must provide the names of at least three finalists. The rules also forbid public officials from conducting government business and committing governing bodies to a specific course of action during executive session. And that is the case even if the actions results from an informal poll and not an actual vote.

The county council violated both those rules. Members met behind closed doors and then directed staff to offer Baker the job of county manager. Council Chairman Buddy Motz affirmed that the council had narrowed the pool to four applicants -- and then there was one, Baker. The public so far has not been privy to the identities of the other candidates.

In the case of the Clover school board, the names of the three finalists were made public -- after the board had voted to hire Sosne. Again, that violates the spirit of the FOI law.

In the case of the county council, this is not the first time members have conducted public business behind closed doors. Ironically, Motz in the past has chided fellow members for violating FOI requirements. Motz, however, was a party to the denial of public access this time.

Ignoring these rules reflects the arrogance of public officials elected to serve the interests of the public. When elected officials are faced with a decision as important as choosing a county manager or schools superintendent, the public must be kept informed throughout the process.

The violation of FOI laws also was a disservice to the two men hired. The closed-door actions of the council and school board immediately cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process and overshadow the hirings themselves.

Do public officials pay a price for keeping the public in the dark? Anyone who violates the FOI law can be fined $100 or imprisoned for up to 30 days on the first offense. But it's highly unlikely a York County Council member or Clover school board member will go to jail. However, they will all pay a price in lost public trust and personal credibility.

As noted, the rules are simple, easy to follow and designed to keep the public informed. What's so hard about following the law?

IN SUMMARY

Both the York County Council and the Clover school board will pay a price for violations.

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