Building Trust with FOIA

SC Freedom of Information Act Brings Opportunities As Well As Challenges

Charlie Funderburk, Tega Cay's city manager, has a saying: "If people don't know what's going on in Tega Cay, it's because they don't want to know."

That's because, he said, the city works hard to communicate its activities, plans and policies through multiple platforms to reach everyone in Tega Cay. City council meetings appear in live broadcasts and are replayed three times a day on the local government cable channel. The broadcasts are also uploaded to the city's website to watch anytime. Once meeting minutes are approved, the city posts those on the website as well. Residents can get a weekly recap of news by email on Saturday mornings.

Those actions go a long way in answering questions and fulfilling a city's responsibility to be transparent. But while cities work proactively to make information easily available, they must also provide information by responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The SC Freedom of Information Act is designed to guarantee that the public has access to public records "prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public body." Anyone — the media, residents or businesses — can request public records, and governments must respond within 10 days in cases where the document is less than two years old.

While responding to FOIA requests can be challenging, releasing documents can help build trust and collaboration between the city and the residents it serves.

"We believe that the FOIA helps the media do a job that we ultimately feel benefits the city and its residents," said Frank Johnson, the public information officer and annexation coordinator for the City of Goose Creek. "We are committed to being transparent and helpful, and view the local media as a partner in providing information to our residents."

City of Goose Creek live stream webpage
The City of Goose Creek live-streams city council meeting video
and provides archived meeting videos.

Goose Creek also keeps its website updated with the latest meeting agendas of city council and city commissions, including access to agenda packets.

"This, coupled with a transparent and helpful attitude towards media requests, creates a feeling of partnership with local media," Johnson said.

Sometimes, the public's desire for information must be weighed against topics such as privacy, legal issues and criminal investigations.

"There are obviously times — such as when our police are protecting the identity of a crime victim, or if the release of information would have a negative effect on an ongoing investigation — when we need to be careful about how much information is released. For the most part, however, we want to release information — and do so in a quick and easy way," Johnson said. "There are many instances when we could insist on a FOIA request but bypass that step. Again, unless there's a really good reason not to provide information to the public, we're going to do it."

Funderburk said he believes the growth of social media and educating the public about the information available on the city website has caused the number of FOIA requests to drop in recent years.

Several years ago, Funderburk said Tega Cay hired a firm that provides municipal web design and software built for local governments. Now, residents can easily access city information and can sign up to receive specific pieces they are interested in. For example, if they opt in to the system and say they are interested in the work of the planning commission, they will receive emails alerting them to commission agendas and other news.

"A lot of the time Joe Citizen doesn't understand what they can readily get and that it's already out there for them. We try to educate them on that side of things. We show them where they can find the information on their own without a FOIA request," he said. "You train your populace over time on where to find that information. We take another minute on the phone and say, 'Are you in front of computer? Let me show you how to find this information.'"

When cities do get formal FOIA requests, they are often handled by municipal clerks or another employee designated as a FOIA coordinator, who then work with department heads. After the city determines if it has the information, the resident will be told the projected cost.

"If we have the information and it's public, we say, 'Sure, here it is,'" Funderburk said. "As I told my IT guy, 'We don't have the nuclear launch codes here.'"