Information withheld from officials, too

I am constantly amazed that information from public financial records and even annual budgets is withheld, not just from the public, but from the voting board members who must approve budgets and expenditures.

Take Lexington-Richland District 5 school board, for instance.

Board members approved a $150 million dollar budget on June 25, even though they had not seen the full detailed budget, only a partial summary that did not balance.

One board member, Kim Murphy, asked for more financial information and reports that were missing before the vote. She did not get what she asked for (and they have not yet responded to her questions).

I think she was right to vote “no” on an incomplete budget that did not balance. Unfortunately, the other more-sheepish board members didn’t stand up, and a pig-in-a-poke was approved.

And in the little town of Rowesville, a council member there asked to see the town’s financial reports for certain months. She was given blank sheets with only the fund headers and no detail. When asked about expenditure details, the town clerk wrote in a letter to her: “I have never nor will I start copying bank statements for council members.”

As her request lingered on and her term ended, the council voted not to give her past records, in direct violation of state law. A letter, signed by the mayor and current council, said “we will not give you anything else from the past years. We feel this takes up too much of the clerk’s time…”

What are these board members thinking? Who is driving this train of secrecy? The public deserves better.

Our state’s attorney general has made it clear in his opinions that public board members have a clear right to see any and all of their agency’s financial records.

In Anderson County, a council member complained of having difficulties obtaining records from county officials.

The attorney general replied: “Prior opinions of this Office make it clear that members of a County Council, such as yourself, are entitled to access to county records. … a member of the governing body of an entity needs access to such records to be able to do the job he or she was elected to do.” The opinion said council members should also have access to personnel records, even if they don’t have power to hire and fire because “the county council is the policy-making and ultimate decision-making body …”

“In short, a member of county council must have access to all pertinent information regarding the operation of county government. Just as each member of the General Assembly has a right to access to information not made privileged or confidential by law concerning the operation of state government. So too does a council member have a right to such access with respect to county government.”

Unfortunately, having the right to see public documents and having the guts to demand that they be handed over are two different things.

Rogers is executive director of the S.C. Press Association.