An eclipse of SC’s Sunshine laws

(Editor’s Note: Sunshine Week, to be held March 10-16 in 2019, is a time set aside each year to celebrate open government.) Remember the August 2017 solar eclipse that carved a path through South Carolina? Bright daylight gave way to shadows, which then gave way to total darkness. Within minutes, of course, a summer day was again put into the sun’s bright light. Another eclipse seems to be taking place in the Palmetto State. In this case, it is what the public should be privy to that is being eclipsed. Private organizations, such as chambers of commerce, that have received public funds have been given a free pass to spend public dollars unchecked and a large enclave of lawmakers can operate in secrecy in the halls of government.

One case came to light after a years-long legal battle over whether a private organization that is given authorization to manage and dispense tax dollars is then considered a public body or, at the very least, must provide all records relative to the expenditure of those tax dollars.

Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce wound up winning its case this past May, a blow to transparency and public accountability. The Chamber received accommodations tax dollars to spend on behalf of the government entities for advertising and promotion of tourism.

The case wound up being heard by the state Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld the Chamber’s private status and held that laws and oversight surrounding the expenditure of A-tax dollars already in place are sufficient. In short, the high court ruled the public cannot have a line-item breakdown of how the Chamber spent the tax dollars. And this isn’t about a few dollars, mind you. In fiscal year 2017, the town of Hilton Head handed $1.7 million in accommodations tax dollars to the Chamber. Seems only right and fair that Hilton Head taxpayers should be privy to exactly what the Chamber did with those dollars in the name of advertising and promotion of tourism. Frankly, one would hope and think the Chamber, if operating above board, would readily make that information available.

One can see the shadow being cast as the eclipse grows.

And only this past week, Fifth Circuit Court Judge Robert Hood ruled the state GOP Legislative Caucus’ financial records are off limits.

In a March 4 story, The State newspaper reported on Hood’s ruling, noting that paper and other media had sued for caucus records handed over to State Law Enforcement Division investigators. Those records were related to a House public corruption probe. The media group contended the caucus’ records and meetings, which are now closed, should be open to the public because the caucus has use of office and meeting space in the Blatt Building on the Statehouse grounds. That space is paid for by taxpayers; the caucus uses it at no charge. The office space used represents an estimated $5,000 annual price tag.

As our current law stands, anyone seeking what they believe to be public information has no recourse but to sue when they believe their rights to access have been denied.

If Hood’s ruling stands, that would have a substantial impact even on the media’s efforts to obtain records and information on behalf of the public. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld corporations’ rights to make political expenditures, establishing what is called corporate personhood. If that’s the case, surely media corporations can be given “personhood” status when working on behalf of the citizenry.

But apparently $5,000 is not enough money to result in public disclosure any more than untold millions of taxpayers’ accommodations tax dollars can. And when it comes to government transparency, it would seem some justices, perhaps beholden to legislators, are culpable cloaking culprits.

The full eclipse is nigh upon us, folks. The question is whether we will emerge from the darkness as Earth did that August day in 2017.

Whiting is executive editor of the Index-Journal in Greenwood, SC and serves as chairman of the SC Press Association’s Freedom of Information Committee. This submission has been edited due to space constraints.

Daniel Island Publishing

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