S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, May 28, 2006
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/06.0528.secrecy.htm


Caucus meetings should be open to public
By Andy Brack
Publisher
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.

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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 and voluntary.

"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 secretly.

  • 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 closed.

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 it legitimate.

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 rooms.

Andy Brack's new book of commentary, Bugging the Palmettos, is available for $15.00. Click here for more.


lighter side

5/28: Gasoline guilt?

Another great cartoon from Bill McLemore:


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feedback
5/22: 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.

Recent feedback

scorecard

Here's a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" related to various political news items from the past week:

Thumbs up

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 committee meeting.

Thumbs down

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 and Courier.


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AVAILABLE NOW: "Bugging the Palmettos," a new book of commentaries from Statehouse Report's Andy Brack, is now available for just $15.00. Click here to learn more and buy the book.

Just a quick note to let you know how you missed out this week. If you were a subscriber to the paid edition of Statehouse Report, you would have received the information below on Friday AND you would have gotten other special features:

  • NUMBER OF THE WEEK: 128
  • JERRY AUSBAND: Looking at next year's agenda
  • LEGISLATIVE AGENDA: Next week in the House and Senate
  • RADAR SCREEN: Unborn children bill
  • PALMETTO POLITICS: Looking ahead
  • TALLY SHEET: Newly-filed legislation
  • BLOGROLL: Bauer spared, others not
  • MEGAPHONE: Seeking diversity

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