OTHER VIEWS: Public information should be accessible all the time, not just when convenient

  • Posted: Friday, January 4, 2013 7:25 a.m.

The published agenda for the most recent Charleston County Joint Legislative Delegation meeting said very little. And in saying so little, it spoke volumes about why lawmakers need to commit to strengthening the state’s Freedom of Information Act, in practice as well as by law.

The most informative thing about the agenda was the heading which gave the address and time of the meeting.

As for business to be handled, here’s what the public was told:

• There will be a prayer.

• North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey will make a presentation on something.

• Unnamed committees will report on unnamed subjects.

• The public will be allowed to speak (about items that they didn’t know were to be discussed?).

• Old and new business would be discussed.

• The delegation chairman, Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, will say when the next meeting will be held.

• The meeting will be adjourned.

Anyone interested in the public’s business would have no idea whether the delegation meeting was worth attending.

Unfortunately, such minimal advance information about the agendas for public meetings is the rule, not the exception. And some suggest that is precisely the point.

In the case of the legislative delegation, it is evidence that the lawmakers consider the Freedom of Information Act a nuisance rather than a guide for keeping the public informed.

They are able to do the public’s business without being annoyed by public questions and comments.

And when they consider the FOIA, it is only to do the minimum it requires.

So it comes as good news that Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, is again pushing for legislation that would put needed teeth in the state’s Freedom of Information law. Revisions would prevent public agencies, governments and school districts from charging excessive fees for information they provide as a result of FOI requests. And the law would require them to respond more quickly to such requests.

Last year, Taylor made a similar effort that also said public entities must post online or have available documents handed out in public meetings during the previous six months. His bill sailed through the House, but stalled in the Senate over a controversial amendment making legislators’ memos and correspondence subject to FOI requests.

That’s worth discussion, but should be dealt with separately, so as not to threaten Taylor’s bill.

It would be reassuring if all public agencies and officials readily and willingly provided public information in a timely, affordable fashion.

But that isn’t the case.

Taylor’s reform measure might not change the minds and hearts of public officials, but it would make it easier for the public to get information it has the right to know.

As for the local delegation, it can start doing a better job of keeping the public informed by providing more than the most perfunctory list of items they plan to consider when they publish their agendas.

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