Editorial | South Carolina Supreme Court thwarts public access to government action

The following editorial appeared in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal on Sunday

The S.C. Supreme Court decided last week that government bodies don’t have to let you know what they’re planning to do.

The court ruled that bodies like school boards, county councils and city councils can hold regular meetings without ever issuing an agenda, and if they do issue an agenda, they can change it on the fly and depart from it at will.

What that means is that if the members of such a body want to take up an important, controversial issue, such as an unpopular tax increase, they never have to let anyone know that they’re going to discuss it. They can simply bring it up at a regular meeting and deal with it. Pesky citizens, who may have wanted to be heard on the issue, won’t find out about it until it’s too late.

The court ruled this way on a suit from Saluda County. The Saluda County Council had been departing from its posted agenda at meetings, and a citizen filed suit, claiming the state Freedom of Information Act doesn’t allow the body to take up issues that it hadn’t given the public notice it would discuss through the agenda.

The Court of Appeals sided with the citizen and principle of open government, ruling that the council’s actions violated the “spirit” and “purpose” of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Supreme Court decided the spirit and purpose were less important than an awkward phrase. The act requires bodies to post agendas for meetings at least 24 hours before they occur. But the language of the act states : “Agenda, if any, for regularly scheduled meetings . .” The court took that to mean agendas aren’t necessary, and if they exist, they can be changed.

By doing so, the court opens the door for public bodies to hide their business.

This abominable ruling points out the fundamental weakness of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. It is too vague and too weak. It has too many loopholes and too little enforcement.