MY TURN: Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

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By Reba Hull Campbell | All states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have public information laws, popularly referred to as “Sunshine Laws,” designed to shed light on government activities, processes and documents. During the week of March 15-21, South Carolina will observe Sunshine Week, a time devoted to increasing public awareness of the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The Municipal Association represents all 270 cities in the state and part of the training it does for city officials focuses on best practices related to FOIA. “There is truth in the old adage: in the absence of information, people will assume the worst,” said Walterboro Mayor Bill Young, president of the Municipal Association.

Campbell

Campbell

The trust lost because of a lack of transparency can lead to strained relationships between city leaders and their constituents, making the job of governing very difficult.

“We are encouraging elected officials and staff, even those who believe they fully understand the FOIA, to observe Sunshine Week by refreshing their FOIA knowledge,” explained Eric Budds, the Association’s deputy executive director.

Actions in 2015 by the General Assembly and the SC Supreme Court have significantly changed meeting notice requirements, mandated agendas for all meetings of public bodies, established new procedures for adding items to meeting agendas and clarified the required procedure to enter executive session.

“It is the responsibility of elected officials to ensure compliance,” noted Budds. In addition, city officials should examine council’s rules of procedure and make any changes necessary to comply with the 2015 FOIA changes and the court’s clarification of executive session procedures.

Because of these changes, the Association recently updated its publications, “Conducting Effective Meetings” and “Handbook for Municipal Elected Officials.” Staff also updated the on-demand Freedom of Information course available on the Association’s website offered through the Municipal Elected Officials Institute of Government. While anyone can view the course, municipal elected officials will receive MEO credit for taking the course.

The S.C. Press Association’s “Public Official’s Guide to Compliance with the Freedom of Information Act” is an excellent resource, said Budds. The publication provides easy-to-understand explanations of the FOIA and its requirements.

A common error, even for municipalities with excellent FOIA compliance reputations, is the failure to understand that FOIA requirements apply to all public bodies of the municipality, not just city council. At the municipal level, public bodies include public utility boards, municipal planning commissions, boards of zoning appeals, architectural review boards and all other boards, commissions or committees appointed by council or reporting to council.

“It is essential for city staff members who work with these boards, committees or commissions to understand the FOIA requirements and ensure they are followed,” explained Budds. “This includes requirements related to open meetings, public meeting notices, agendas, minutes, executive sessions and the release of public documents.”

Reba Hull Campbell is deputy executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina. This is reprinted from the Municipal Association’s March issue of Uptown. For more information, visit www.masc.sc (keyword: FOIA).

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