What’s that saying? It feels like deja vu all over again?
Yes it does, at least when it comes to producing meaningful changes to our state’s Freedom of Information Act and when it comes to getting genuine transparency from our elected and appointed offices.
While serving as governor, Nikki Haley pledged there would be more transparency and substantial progress in the area of ethics within the halls of government. She’s now working for President Trump as our nation’s representative to the United Nations. State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, has been spending countless hours and, really, years trying to make the FOIA more public friendly.
And it doesn’t stop there. Despite some well-meaning efforts among lawmakers such as Taylor, the Freedom of Information Act in its current form is abused greatly by elected bodies and public agencies. Many thumb their noses at you, the public, when you are asking for information that rightfully belongs to you. Those who abuse the public’s right to know are reminiscent of the person directing people passing by a crime scene or wreck who says, “Move along. There’s nothing to see here.”
Unfortunately, there is little the public can do when its requests for information are ignored. Sure, they can pursue a lawsuit to get what they should have been given to begin with, but how many are willing to fork out the dollars necessary to take the case before a judge? It’s a costly -- and timely -- adventure, believe us.
In just a few days, a year will have passed since this newspaper sought public information from former Greenwood County Sheriff Tony Davis. At issue was -- and still is -- the death of a detention center inmate. On behalf of the taxpayers, the newspaper sought whatever information should be readily available in an effort to shed light on the inmate’s death. After all, this was not a death that occurred in a private home. It occurred in the county detention center, where the inmate was under the care and supervision of taxpayer-funded employees of the sheriff’s office. We shared the same concerns as the public. How did this man die? Did detention center employees follow policy and procedure in handling the situation leading up to and even after his death?
Not only would written reports provide insight into these and other questions, but also video recorded on detention center cameras could corroborate or contradict written reports. The public release of law enforcement video is not a new concept, but it is one that seems to have varying degrees of support, depending on which side of the equation one is on. If, for example, video helps clear an officer’s name it is often quickly released. Many law enforcement agencies, however, have also been quick to release video even when it proves damning to the department.
At issue here, and as has been reported extensively, is that a family member has intervened between the law enforcement agency and the public by suing to prevent the release of additional video that could certainly shed light on the inmate’s death. We certainly understood the family’s desire not to have their loved one’s final moments on display for anyone to see and, frankly, we offered that it was highly improbable that we would publish such a video on our website. We certainly would err on the side of what is considered good taste, but we contended then, as we do now, that the ability to at least view the video for the purposes of reporting on a person’s death while in the care of a public agency should not be thwarted.
It took plenty of wrangling to finally get copies of reports relative to the man’s death and even more wrangling to get a portion of detention center video, but that video merely shows the inmate’s booking. The sheriff’s office refused to release or even allow a reporter to review the portion of video that would shed substantially more light on the incident.
Really, that is the issue here. Light. Sunshine. That’s why laws such as South Carolina’s own Freedom of Information Act are often referred to as “sunshine laws.” Such laws exist for good reason. They are designed to hold elected and appointed office-holders accountable. In short, they are designed to help ensure the public’s business is done out in the open and not in the shadows.
Sunshine laws are for you, the public. They are not, as all too often the claim is made, created as a means of letting the media poke its noses into others’ business. True, the media -- and most especially newspapers -- are more often than not the ones who seek information under the Freedom of Information Act and other sunshine laws, but they do so on behalf of the public.
Sunshine Week begins today. We urge you to join us this week and throughout the year in demanding transparency from the people whose salaries you pay and whom you elect. Join us in demanding that they conduct your business in the open and release to you that which rightfully belongs to you. Join us in supporting legislation that strengthens the FOIA and provides a clearer and more cost-effective pathway for you to access public information. Help let the sunshine in.