South Carolina lawmakers push for freer information flow

Friday, May 1, 1998

A bill to strengthen portions of South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act is moving through the state legislature in an effort to improve access to public records and minimize closed-door meetings.

The Senate on Thursday approved a measure that now goes to the House, where passage is expected.

If approved, the legislation would:

  • Eliminate the requirement for a written request to view or copy the minutes of public bodies within the past six months, recent jail records and court records during normal business hours;
  • Require public bodies undertaking employee searches to disclose information about top candidates. Their Social Security numbers, tax returns and medical records could be kept private;
  • Require public bodies to give specifics about why they go into closed sessions, and prohibit the taking of straw polls or informal votes behind closed doors;
  • Allow public bodies to go into closed sessions only for legal reasons to get advice on pending, threatened or potential claims or other matters covered by the attorney-client privilege.

Jay Bender, an attorney representing the South Carolina Press Association, is satisfied with current wording of S.22. He said: “We've voiced our concerns and we were able to reach a compromise. This is not a problem.”

Bender questioned the motives behind earlier forms of the bill. Specifically, he cited a push by the governor and the Department of Commerce to exempt from public disclosure department contracts and financial documents, including checks, in the possession of the agency.

“Keeping taxpayers in the dark is not fair,” Bender wrote in a recent Charleston Post and Courier editorial. “If the Department of commerce and the governor continue to fight to keep economic development expenditures from the people who pay the taxes to support the effort, would it be fair to suggest that what they want is a secret slush fund to be spent without the public ever being able to learn of who got the money and what the public got in return?”

State Sen. Hugh Leatherman, bill sponsor, said the bill is likely to pass before the session ends in June.