Remove cloud cover from SC public information, let sun shine in

It’s not so much a celebration as it is an awareness campaign. Throughout the state and all across the country, this week is designated as Sunshine Week.

The week has nothing to do with weather conditions but everything to do with how the country is weathering a constant chipping away of its rights to be served by a transparent government in which public information flows readily into the hands of the people served by those they elect and appoint.

This applies to the grassroots level, the state level and, certainly, the federal level.

Here in South Carolina we frequently hear lawmakers state their staunch support for the public’s right to access public information, but let meaningful legislation hit the floor and watch how quickly the particulars are debated and kept at bay from a vote as it is batted back and forth in committee until – suddenly and quite deliberately – another session has come and gone with little or nothing accomplished.

State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, has been on the front lines for years now in an effort to bring about logical and meaningful changes to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, a law whose teeth sit like a set of dentures in a bedside glass. Taylor has sought to reduce fees associated with obtaining public information, fees that are often arbitrary at best, deliberately intimidating at worst.

Exorbitant hourly research fees are foisted on the public in an effort to stave off further inquiries. Roadblocks are established that are the equivalent of an inquisition into why someone in the public sector wants access to information it rightfully should receive.

Delay tactics are deployed that allow public bodies to shelter information until receipt of the information becomes irrelevant. Copy fees far in excess of what any office supply store would charge are assessed for information that could easily be transmitted electronically because nowadays so much information is stored digitally.

Do not be fooled by the platitudes that roll out of the mouths of lawmakers who claim they are doing the public’s business in full and open view as they attach amendments, debate amendments and hold public information hostage in committee.

Do not be fooled by lawmakers who claim to be staunch supporters of open, transparent government who then stonewall efforts to open the doors and windows to the public eye instead of working in concert with other lawmakers to remodel a state law in need of repair on the public’s behalf.

We are in an era in which government does not seem to mind extending its reach into gathering information on us, but resists – and even erodes – efforts by the public to access information that belongs in its purview.

Newspapers have long been the champions of the people’s right to access public information. We continue that effort today and strive to help bring about a greater understanding of what is public information through stories, editorials and, on occasion, lawsuits that must be filed as a last resort to pry from the hands of public bodies that which belongs in the hands of the public.

As chairman of the S.C. Press Association’s Freedom of Information committee, I urge you to develop a greater understanding of what constitutes public information and your rights to that information under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

And I urge you to remind your school boards, your town, city and county councils, your state lawmakers, your public servants that they work for you.

Tell them that when it comes to accessing public information, you want the forecast to be and remain sunny. There’s been too much cloud cover already.

Richard Whiting is executive editor of the Index-Journal and chairman of the S.C. Press Association’s Freedom of Information committee. Write to him at rwhiting@indexjournal.com.