Quarterly Update

By Reba Campbell
March 01, 2013
Every year in March, the Municipal Association of SC partners with the South Carolina Press Association to observe Sunshine Week, a national initiative to encourage dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. This year, Sunshine Week is March 10 - 17.

The Municipal Association, representing all 270 cities and towns in the state, serves as a statewide training source for municipal leaders to understand and carry out their responsibilities as elected officials. A key part of this training involves the importance of open government to our democracy.

A central element of democracy is the crucial connection between citizen participation and the awareness of the public’s business discussed by elected leaders. Trust is a critical component in this connection. Government leaders must uphold that trust by building a healthy, positive relationship with the people they serve.

South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act is an important part of this partnership between governments and the people they serve because it provides a blueprint of expectations for citizens, the news media and government leaders.

The Freedom of Information Act was initially passed in 1976 to ensure public access to information about government at every level in every hometown. In the ensuing years, this law has guided the actions of elected officials to ensure South Carolinians have access to what happens when government leaders gather and make decisions.

Elected officials represent all walks of life and don’t necessarily come to their jobs armed with the details of the Freedom of Information Act. It’s a complex law filled with nuances and special language that can be widely interpreted. Every year, the Municipal Association of South Carolina provides substantial training to local elected officials to help them understand this complex and, sometimes misunderstood, law.

The Municipal Association also works closely with the Press Association throughout the year on many issues related to open government. From providing major training classes for newly elected officials about FOIA to annual distribution of the Press Association’s FOIA guide, this partnership between the two associations demonstrates that local governments believe strongly in the rights of residents to understand the decisions officials in your city or town make.

Part of this training also relates to the rare occurrences when public business can be discussed in private. A large majority of the people’s business is – and should be - discussed in front of the people who pay the bills. On the rare occasion when public business is held in confidence, there are provisions in the Freedom of Information Act that articulate guidelines for private discussion in city and town council meetings. Understanding of this element of the law is critical.

As the elected officials closest to the people they serve, mayors and councilmembers have the most direct contact with the people who elect them. Municipal leaders sit with their constituents at church, eat with them at the corner lunch spot and cheer with them for the local ball teams. Maintaining trust and accountability at this very local level is absolutely critical to government credibility.

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