By Reba Hull Campbell, special to Statehouse Report | As the elected officials closest to the people they serve, mayors and council members have the most direct contact with the people who elect them. Municipal leaders sit with their constituents at church, eat with them at the corner lunch spot and cheer with them for the local ball teams.
Two characteristics of a great democracy are citizen participation and the discussion of public business in public. Trust is a critical element in this partnership. Municipal governmental leaders must uphold that trust by building a healthy, positive relationship with their residents.
South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act is an important part of this partnership between governments and the people they serve because it provides a blueprint of expectations for residents, the news media and government leaders.
The General Assembly initially passed the Freedom of Information Act in 1976 to ensure public access to information about government at every level, including the municipal level. In the ensuing years, this law has guided the actions of government and the news media to ensure South Carolinians have access to what happens when government leaders gather and make decisions.
Elected officials represent all walks of life and don’t necessarily come to their jobs armed with the details of the Freedom of Information Act. It’s a complex law filled with nuances and special language that can be widely interpreted. Every year, the Municipal Association of South Carolina provides substantial training to local elected officials to help them understand this complex and, sometimes misunderstood, law.
In anticipation of the Sunshine Week observance next week, the Municipal Association has published five articles in the March issue of the Uptown magazine to spotlight best practices related to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
- Top FOIA questions from Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association
- Reporters weigh in: What they value in government websites
- Procedure to add items to a public meeting agenda
- FOIA requests: How to help both parties
- Remote venues, smartphones can bring open-meeting trouble
For many years, the Municipal Association of S.C. has partnered with the S.C. Press Association to share resources and offer training for local officials regarding the Freedom of Information Act.
“The Municipal Association provides substantial training every year for elected officials and city staff to help them dig into the details of the Freedom of Information Act,” said Miriam Hair, executive director of the Association, which represents all 270 South Carolina cities.
One of the Association’s go-to resources for training is the S.C. Press Association’s guide to the Freedom of Information Act. “This is one of first handbooks we make sure newly officials get right after they are elected,” Hair said.
For mayors and council members, the South Carolina Municipal Elected Officials Institute of Government is the training program where local officials can gain a basic understanding of the major issues they will consider in their council roles.
Mayors and council members participating in the training program receive FOIA training in one of their first MEO Institute sessions. It is taught in a classroom setting as well as in an online format available 24/7. S.C. Press Association Executive Director Bill Rogers is one of the instructors for the FOIA class.
Last year, the Municipal Association and the Press Association partnered on a training tool to help local officials and reporters understand the requirements mandated by new legislation regarding the process for changing a meeting agenda within 24 hours of a meeting. The two associations created a flow chart and simple instructions that outline the process, making it clear for all involved.
The Municipal Association also provides FOIA training for a variety of city staff positions, including city managers, clerks, business licensing professionals, municipal attorneys, public information officers, utility clerks, HR professionals and court administrators.
Sunshine Week gives us the chance to reflect on the fact that government succeeds with the sun shining, not in a partly cloudy environment. It is critical that citizens have access to and can participate in the process that makes this nation great.
Reba Hull Campbell is deputy executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina.
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