The Municipal Association’s field services managers, Charlie Barrineau and Jeff Shacker, often receive questions about the SC Freedom of Information Act
. Here are some of the most common questions.
1. Are council work sessions considered public meetings subject to FOIA?
Yes. These meetings count as special meetings, and must comply with all requirements for notices, agenda release, public access and minutes.
2. Are cities required to release draft minutes of meetings?
Yes. Once a city has created a draft, it is a public record. To clarify that council has not yet approved the draft, it’s advisable to stamp or watermark the document as “draft,” “unapproved” or both.
3. How can items be added to the agenda within 24 hours of the meeting?
If the agenda item does not require a vote, the council should use their adopted rules for adding an item.
If the item requires a vote and there has been a noticed public comment period, then adding the item requires a 2/3 vote of councilmembers present.
If the vote is the final vote, or if there has not been a public comment period, then adding the item requires a 2/3 vote of members present and a finding of emergency or exigent circumstances.
Cities can cancel meetings with less than 24-hour notice when following their municipal code procedure.
4. Should elected officials be required to submit FOIA requests to obtain public information from their municipality?
A June 28, 2019
, opinion from the SC attorney general would suggest that the answer is likely no. That opinion centered on a school board member seeking financial records, and concluded that “an elected official has the right to access financial documents possessed by the governmental entity that he or she is elected to oversee. Further, it is this Office’s opinion that a member of a school district board of trustees may request a detailed statement of what expenses are being incurred by the school district.”
5. What should a city do when responding to blanket requests from what appear to be commercial firms?
SC Code Section 30-2-50
prohibits anyone from “knowingly obtain[ing] or [using] personal information obtained from a state agency, a local government, or other political subdivision of the State for commercial solicitation.” When fulfilling requests for releasable information, the law requires that governments give notice of this section of the law to the requester. It’s helpful to include the prohibition language in the response.
6. What information must cities withhold, and what must they release for FOIA requests on city-issued business licenses and permits?
Information that cities must withhold includes gross income, the value of the job in question and personal identifying information, such as a tax ID and Social Security number. They must also withhold the license tax paid or fee paid, if someone can use the amount to calculate the original gross income or job value. The job value, especially on major projects, can be a much-sought-after piece of information even though it is unreleasable.
Items cities must release include the names of businesses and individuals the city has licensed or permitted during the period requested. Also releasable are the location for a license or permit, the mailing address, other obtainable contact information and rate classifications.
Making information available when possible
Field Services Manager Charlie Barrineau noted that websites give cities and towns a way to be proactive about pushing out public documents like agendas, minutes, draft ordinances, city code, budgets and bid results.
“When you push out public information as it becomes available,” he said, “you can respond to FOIA requests as they come in by saying, ‘follow this link,’ which can save time and the costs of printing.”