Not a great year for open government

This won’t be a banner year for open government. But at least there’s a chance that the Legislature will require government bodies in the state to post public agendas before public meetings.

A number of other bills, all of which would advance the public’s right to know what governing bodies at all levels are up to, appear to be stuck and unlikely to pass this session. Stalled legislation includes a bill to make autopsy reports part of public records, another to clarify how quickly governments must respond to requests for public records and another to prevent them from charging excessive fees for records.

But as of last week, a House and Senate conference committee seemed close to a deal on a bill requiring the publishing of meeting agendas. One facet of the bill would require a two-thirds vote to change an agenda within a day of the meeting. City or county councils or other public bodies also would have to agree that it was an emergency situation if the members could make a final decision on the agenda item.

Another compromise in the bill would require any public body that maintains its own website to publish the agenda online.

Many might wonder why such a bill is necessary. Shouldn’t common sense dictate that all governing bodies publish an agenda for their meetings before they convene?

This bill, however, is designed to clarify that publishing agendas of public meetings is mandatory, not optional. The issue arose after the state Supreme Court ruled last year that the law, as written, merely suggests that agendas be published rather than requiring them.

Most public bodies in the state already routinely publish agendas well in advance of meetings. But the power of law is needed to ensure that governments are held accountable in all situations.

This has been a disappointing session for bills that would help ensure open government. The stalled bill that would require making autopsies public was a response to a different state Supreme Court ruling last year. The ruling stated that autopsies are private medical records, not public records.

But advocates of making autopsies public note that vital information can be suppressed if autopsies remain private. The case that prompted the Supreme Court ruling is a good example.

In that case, police in Sumter County said they shot and killed a man because he was facing them with a gun. The Sumter County coroner refused to release the autopsy report, but a reporter with the Sumter Item obtained the autopsy report from another source.

That report showed the man had been shot twice in the back and twice in the back of the head. Any time a police officer is involved in an incident that results in death, the public has a right to know the cause, and autopsy reports can provide that information.

The bill that would require governments to provide public records within a reasonable time and not charge excessive fees to do so was passed by the House but is stuck in the Senate. Stalling tactics and high fees are transparent ploys to prevent the public from gaining access to records.

In some cases, governments have stonewalled requests for records for months. And many governing bodies charge hundreds of dollars for copies of public records, making them unaffordable for many private citizens.

The bad news is that these bills didn’t pass this year. The potential good news is that they will be included next year as part of a larger reform package.

Reformers have fought for more than five years to update the Freedom of Information Act, give South Carolina residents more access to public information and prevent governments from denying them that information. Maybe next year will be a year for those who value open government to celebrate.

In summary

Bills that got stuck in limbo this year might return as part of a larger Freedom of Information Act reform package next year.