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Voices. Knowledge. Solutions.

Freshen Up on FOIA Topics

Sunshine Week 2023, a time to highlight the importance of access to public information so that residents can know and understand what is happening within their government, has now wrapped up.  The Municipal Association offers resources showing how local governments can operate within the requirements of the SC Freedom of Information Act, in addition to the guide offered by the SC Press Association

Here are some of the FOIA resource highlights:

Proactive information sharing

A city government’s website serves as one of the easiest ways for it to share public information with residents, and many will now heavily load their website with materials. The Municipal Association’s Uptown publication recently highlighted the efforts of Batesburg-Leesville, Sullivan’s Island and Briarcliffe Acres to promote transparency through websites. An article in the March 2022 issue explored how city and town clerks in Irmo, Travelers Rest and Summerville will share public meeting agendas as widely as possible.

Releasing records

Uptown recently published a breakdown on what municipalities should consider when setting fee schedules for FOIA requests, as well as what to know about releasing the body-worn camera footage of police officers. Although anyone can make a FOIA request, it is often the news reporters tasked with covering local governments who make them. In a 2022 article, several reporters shared their experiences about how the process works, and what local governments can do to make it easier.

Public meetings

FOIA specifies what counts as a public meeting requiring the body to give public notice in advance, and also establishes requirements for how public bodies may operate in executive session. A previous article explains how councils can avoid accidental quorums subject to FOIA when communicating through email, while another recent article discusses how they can publicly address a matter in open session they had discussed confidentially.

While public comment sessions are not a legal requirement, they are often used in council meetings. This article as well as this podcast explore how councils can approach and manage public comment periods.

Records management

South Carolina’s Public Records Act and FOIA cover the variety of documents that count as “public records,” which need to be retained and potentially released upon request. A recent article covered how to maintain those electronic records properly.

First Amendment audits

First Amendment audits, the process of members of the public recording video in city offices or other public places — often aggressively or with an intent to provoke a reaction — are also not a FOIA issue, but they do arise in discussions of governmental transparency. An Uptown article described these audits and steps that cities and towns should take when addressing them.