Sunshine and new leaders for S.C.
Last week was Sunshine Week. What the heck is this, you might rightly ask, and why should I care? Is it the big tourist promotion campaign in Myrtle Beach to get all the Canadians to come south and jump in the ocean long before any South Carolinian in their right mind would do so?
No, it’s not that. It relates to government. Government, you might say as you scratch your head in puzzlement. Is this about getting all the state employees outside for a while so that there can be spring cleaning in the state office building? Well, it’s not that either, but you are getting a little closer. Sunshine Week is something that the newspaper and media people care a lot about (and since I’ve been doing this column for several years now, I guess I’m one of ‘them’) – so pay attention.
According to the S.C. Press Association (full disclosure, I’m a member) Sunshine Week is “a time that advocates use to celebrate triumphs and address short-comings of open government laws and teach people how to use them.” That’s newspaper speak for government secrecy – the government keeping information secret from the citizens.
To media types this is a really big deal and they justifiably talk about Constitutional rights and freedom on the press as the bulwark against secret government. To most of us in our daily life, this doesn’t seem like a big deal – until it is. It’s about your not being able to get a professional license because there is a ‘problem with your record’ and the government agency says they can’t tell you what it is.
It’s when your child has an altercation with the local police and someone ends up hurt or even dead, and the police won’t release the tape from the dashboard camera that shows what really happened. It’s about when legislators cut a sleazy deal to enrich themselves and their friends (and we the taxpayers pay for it) but the legislator is not required to list the business dealing on their ethics disclosure report.
You get the picture. Government in the sunshine is a big deal. And this battle between the government and its citizens has deep roots in our state. One of my favorite family history stories is about how in 1763, Patrick Calhoun led a group of Upstate woodsmen trekking to Charleston to demand that they get access to records about how the Charleston folks apportioned the legislature to ensure that the Lowcountry power was preserved.
Calhoun and his heavily armed friends, kicked open the court house door and demanded the information and ‘advocated’ that the legislature lines be made fairer. These backwoods men (and their guns) carried the day and Calhoun was elected the new representative of the Upstate on the spot. This sense of basic and rough justice has always appealed to me and I believe that the whole government in the sunshine debate should be decided on the basis of one simple test: if the tax payers paid for it, it should be public.
That means if a government agency has information, if government employees compiled or required the information, if proposals, contacts and payments are made – then we as taxpayers have a right to the information. Of course there have to be rare allowances for personnel records and the very occasional sensitive business negations (think Volvo or Boeing deal), but before a deal is done the public deserves to know what are the terms of the deal.
As common sense as this principle is, too often that’s not how governments work in South Carolina, local or state. Too many governments generally try and turn things on its head and say everything should be secret unless we the taxpayers convince someone that it should be made public. They seem to forget they work for us and we pay their salary (and their vacation, retirement, health care and in many cases, their car). Generally speaking, it’s been the newspapers and other media companies that have fought the hardest for the rights of citizens to have access to government information.
You may have heard the term FOIA; it strikes fear in the hearts of government employees and joy in the hearts of the media and open government advocates. FOIA stands for Freedom of Information Act and it outlines the rules about what government must disclose, how often and at what cost. A problem is that FOIA laws vary widely from state to state and local government to local government.
Too often both end up in court fighting over individual FOIA requests. Governments want looser disclosure rules; media and citizen groups want tighter disclosure rules. As difficult and murky as are the FOIA laws in South Carolina, there is reason for hope. A new generation of political leaders is coming to power and they have a different mindset from politicians of the past. In the age of Google and big data, their default attitude is ‘release it’ and not the traditional government position of ‘hold it.’
And part of what makes this change so hopeful is that FOIA and open government issues are becoming increasingly non-ideological. It’s not about left and right – it’s about reform or the status quo. Beyond the media companies, the two greatest open government advocates are the South Carolina Policy Council and Common Cause, groups generally considered on the right and on the left in traditional political terms.