We’re nearing the end of another Sunshine Week, when media outlets across the nation celebrate open government and advocate for more transparency in the halls of power. In past years we’ve used the occasion to call for a variety of reforms, including more robust freedom of information laws in our state, fewer executive sessions at local governmental bodies, better monitoring of those secret meetings and more basic training for public employees on the state’s public access laws. Those concerns haven’t changed.
But while there are still plenty of issues to address across our state and region – and we will continue to point them out – for today at least we choose to see the glass as half full, and we’ll instead celebrate some successes of local institutions. There have been achievements in public access and open government here in recent years and we honor them to spread the worthy ideas and practices to other local governments and agencies.
Foremost among these achievements is the growing availability of video of public meetings. Horry County has been a local leader in recording all of its meetings. Video archives of the county’s meetings – full council gatherings as well as committee meetings – are now available online and stretch back years. It’s an invaluable resource not just for journalists or researchers but for any engaged resident interested in a specific topic and curious about what was really said when council members got together. The state legislature also records its sessions as well as many of its committee meetings and puts the video online, a great option for residents interested in the workings of their government but unable to make it to Columbia.
We often wish more candidates for political office would avail themselves of such background research options to better familiarize themselves with how these public bodies work before attempting to join in sight unseen.
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North Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach and Horry County are to be commended for sending out not only notices of upcoming council meetings but attaching relevant supporting documents as well, providing not just a bare bones agenda of what will be discussed but the proposed text of ordinances, related reports from other municipal bodies, contract details, environmental studies and more. The practice means not only more information for interested observers, but less work for public employees who may otherwise have to field requests after the fact for relevant documents.
When it comes to tracking public spending, Horry County, Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach and North Myrtle Beach, as well as Coastal Carolina University, have all begun posting their expenses online, a useful and enlightening tool for anyone interested in exactly where their tax dollars are going.
We live in an age of almost unending information. Jail logs are available online hours after inmates are booked. Local police reports and court records are updated in real time. Campaign donation reports are open to the public and stretch back years. Obscure government records such as environmental permits for renovating a dock on the waterway are posted online for all to see.
In short, if it’s information you want, the world these days can provide it. Our role as journalists is most often not to simply parrot that information to our readers, but to collate, contextualize and filter it to highlight the most important of the data and explain why the information matters.
Many of the recent changes in public access have been for the better and help us to not only find and receive facts and figures more easily but to provide that information to readers more quickly and efficiently. There are certainly still strides to be made, but many have been made already, and for that we’re grateful.