Letting the sunshine in

All states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have public information laws, popularly referred to as "Sunshine Laws," designed to shed light on government activities, processes and documents. During the week of March 15-21, South Carolina will observe Sunshine Week, a time devoted to increasing public awareness of the Freedom of Information Act, S.C. Code of Laws § 30-4-80.

Sunshine Week logo 

All South Carolina cities and towns should celebrate Sunshine Week, said Mayor Bill Young of Walterboro and current Municipal Association president. "There is truth in the old adage: in the absence of information, people will assume the worst. The trust lost because of a lack of transparency can lead to strained relationships between city leaders and their constituents, making the job of governing very difficult."

"We are encouraging elected officials and staff, even those who believe they fully understand the FOIA, to observe Sunshine Week by refreshing their FOIA knowledge," explained Young.

Recent actions by the General Assembly and the SC Supreme Court have significantly changed meeting notice requirements, mandated agendas for all meetings of public bodies, established new procedures for adding items to an agenda and clarified the required procedure to enter executive session.

Presiding officers and parliamentarians must understand these changes, particularly the process for amending an agenda once a meeting is called to order and the new multistep process to enter executive session. This process is illustrated in a simple flowchart created by the Municipal Association and the SC Press Association.

"It is the presiding officers’ and parliamentarians’ responsibility to ensure compliance," reminded Eric Budds, the Association’s deputy executive director. In addition, city officials should examine their rules of procedure and make any changes necessary to comply with the recent FOIA changes and the court’s clarification of executive session procedures.

Because of these changes, the Association recently updated its publications, Conducting Effective Meetings and Handbook for Municipal Elected Officials. Staff also updated the on-demand Freedom of Information course offered through the Municipal Elected Officials Institute of Government. While anyone can view the course, only municipal elected officials will receive MEO Institute credit for taking the course.

The SC Press Association’s "Public Official’s Guide to Compliance with the Freedom of Information Act" is an excellent resource, said Budds. The publication provides easy-to-understand explanations of the FOIA and its requirements.

A common error, even for municipalities with excellent FOIA compliance reputations, is the failure to understand that FOIA requirements apply to all public bodies of the municipality, not just city council. At the municipal level, public bodies include public utility boards, planning commissions, boards of zoning appeals, architectural review boards and all other boards, commissions or committees appointed by council or reporting to council.

"It is essential for city staff members who work with these boards, committees or commissions to understand the FOIA requirements and ensure they are followed," explained Budds. "This includes requirements related to open meetings, public meeting notices, agendas, minutes, executive sessions and the release of public documents."