Sunday, May 28, 2006
meetings should be open to public
SC Statehouse Report
MAY 28, 2006 - - If anybody understands the importance of
politicians strategizing in private about what they're going
to do, it's Attorney General Henry McMaster, former chairman
of the state Republican Party.
But McMaster also understands state law, which says meetings
of public officials should be open to the public except on
a few narrow and specific cases that generally deal with employment
matters, economic development, investment matters and security.
In fact, McMaster's office offers a handy guideline for all
public officials about meetings: "When in doubt, open
the meeting to the public."
State law is abundantly clear: "Every meeting of all
public bodies shall be open to the public" unless specifically
exempted. Even so, public officials elected by taxpayers to
do the public's business often try to do it in secret.
The reasoning for keeping meetings open is pretty simple:
Because voters give public officials the power to act on their
behalf, residents should know exactly what public officials
are doing that might affect them.
Unfortunately, there's a long state tradition for keeping
meetings of legislative caucuses out of public scrutiny. A
political caucus is a group of like-minded individuals who
meet to talk about common interests. The case at hand involves
the House Republican Caucus.
Earlier this month, McMaster issued a non-binding opinion
that said meetings of the House Republican Caucus were subject
to the state's open meetings law and should be open to the
public - and reporters.
encourage your feedback. If you'd like to respond to
something in SC Statehouse Report, please
send us an e-mail. We reserve the right to edit for
length and clarity. One submission allowed per month.
Submission of a comment grants permission to us to reprint.
Please keep your comment to 250 words or less:
House Republicans, who asked for the opinion, strongly disagree.
They continue to argue they're not an official policy-making
body, but a political group whose membership is dues-paying
"We can't hold binding votes and we have members not
serving in this body at this time," says House Majority
Leader Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island.
House Republicans also note while they use public facilities
to meet and get free rent in a state office building, the
value of state funds they use is negligible.
But McMaster says that logic is faulty because state law
doesn't use levels of value to determine whether a group is
covered under the open meetings law. The law, he reiterates,
is clear - all meetings should be open if a group is a "public
body," which he argues the caucus is.
"They are violating the law in the opinion of the Attorney
General's office - a violation of the Freedom of Information
Act as written," McMaster said in an interview.
"As written" is a key phrase. Why? Because McMaster's
opinion is non-binding. House Republican say they'll continue
to meet in secret because they don't think the law applies
to them. In other words, a showdown is in the offing. Here's
what could happen:
- Nothing. Tradition wins and caucuses - Democratic
and Republican - keep meeting in secret.
- Lawsuit. Somebody files a lawsuit to force caucuses
to open meetings.
- Move. Lawmakers could move meetings away from Statehouse
grounds into a private facility, but they still would be
violating the law, according to the opinion, by meeting
- Change. Or lawmakers just change the law. In other
words, since they wrote the original law, they can change
it to exempt caucuses.
While McMaster is clear he believes caucus meetings should
be open, his opinion offers state lawmakers two clear strategies
they can use to exempt themselves if they want to - - to simply
change the law, as suggested above, or to adopt a House rule
that exempts them. Past court rulings from other states suggest
simply adding a rule will legally allow them to keep the meetings
But state lawmakers shouldn't hide behind a rule and certainly
shouldn't pass a special law to allow them to keep their caucus
meetings secret. They are public officials paid by state taxpayers
to do the public's work. When they meet as a large group,
as the Republican Caucus does, they talk about issues of public
importance and develop strategies.
Keeping caucus meetings private is dangerous because it allows
state lawmakers to have a secret place where they can have
frank or heated discussions and crystallize their views "to
a point just short of ceremonial acceptance," as one
New York court case said. In other words, they can do the
real work in secret and come out of secret session to make
Just because caucus meetings have always been secret is no
reason to keep them that way. When public officials meet,
they should err on the side of sunshine, not smoke-filled
Andy Brack's new book of commentary, Bugging
the Palmettos, is available for $15.00. Click
here for more.
Another great cartoon from Bill McLemore:
best way to get South Carolina news is to augment your morning
paper and TV show with SC Clips, a daily executive
news summary compiled from more than 30 state newspaper and
TV sources. It's delivered every business day and is packed
with news of statewide impact, politics, business and more.
Subscriptions are affordable at $30 per month -- and less
for business subscribers. More: SC
Gas tax needed for better roads
If the Governor thinks SC DOT can afford to give up gas tax
for 3 months, he should ask them why they (through the Bank
Board) insist that Horry County government pony up some local
funds to help pay for needed STATE roads...
-- Bob Logan, Little River, S.C.
a connection, Butch
Robbins, Hilton Head Island, SC
- 2/24: Block the
sale of national forest land, Elizabeth Bailey, Darlington
Here's a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" related to various
political news items from the past week:
Bauer. Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer is a lucky man. He and
a passenger survived the fiery crash of Bauer's light plane
this past week at a grass landing strip near Blacksburg. Bauer
and the passenger, also a pilot, were injured, and Bauer must
have surgery on his crushed heel. Nonetheless, they both survived,
and people in the Statehouse were saying almost unanimously
that God must have intervened.
Cotty. The compromise worked out on property tax reform
must be largely credited to the efforts of Rep. Bill Cotty,
R-Richland. Although all the conference committee members
worked long and hard, Cotty (1) suggested a one percent sales
tax on Wednesday that eventually won out and (2) wrote the
compromise plan on a take-out food box at a Thursday conference
Pay up: According to the Legislative Audit Council,
the Department of Corrections is not keeping track of inmates'
orders to pay child support in too many cases. The 50 highest-paid
inmates range in income from $14,255 to $18,589, but four
of the nine inmates in that group were not assessed child
support by Corrections, despite court orders to pay between
$7,430 and $20,222. Maybe the state ought to have to pay.
Brown: When most residents think of "alternative
energy," they think of wind and solar energy, among others,
to relieve the state and the nation of a dependence on foreign
oil supplies and prices. When S.C. Congressman Henry Brown,
R-1st District, writes about "alternative energy,"
his aim is at offshore drilling along the South Carolina coast
and at tapping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for more
oil. No environmentalist, he. More: Post
How you can subscribe to the full edition
of the report
The above version of S.C. Statehouse Report is the
free edition. Our paid version, which costs about $100 per
month, offer a weekly legislative forecast packed with information
that can keep you and your business on the cutting edge.
Notes veteran lawmaker Sen. Glenn McConnell: "Statehouse
Report gives an inside practical report of weekly problems
with and progress of legislation. It reviews the whole landscape."
In each issue of Statehouse Report, you'll get:
- Hot issue
-- an early peek at weekly commentary on something really
big. Last year, we continually beat other news organizations
in finding major trends in issues, from teacher and budget
cuts to wetlands proposals.
- Agenda -- a weekly forecast of
the coming week's floor agenda
- Radar Screen -- a behind-the-scenes
look at what's really going on in the General Assembly
- McLemore's World -- an early view
of our respected cartoonist Bill McLemore.
- Tally Sheet -- a weekly review
of all of the new bills introduced in the legislature in
- Blogroll -- a weekly summary of
the best of South Carolina political blogs.
- Scorecard -- A Thumbs Up and Thumbs
Down of major political/policy events for the week.
- Calendar -- a weekly list of major
meetings for the House, Senate and state agencies.
- Megaphone -- a quote of the week
that you'll find illuminating.
To learn more about subscriptions, contact Andy Brack at:
South Carolina Statehouse Report
Publisher: Andy Brack
Editor: Betsy Brack
Phone: 843.670.3996 · Fax: 843.722.9887
Subscription or sponsorship Inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
Have an event for the SC Statehouse Report calendar?
E-mail details to: email@example.com
or fax to above number.