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SC Freedom of Information Act Promotes Transparency, Creates Requirements

Sunshine Week 2024Sunshine Week provides a time to focus on the value of access to public information and helping residents understand the workings of their government. The cornerstone of governmental transparency in South Carolina is the SC Freedom of Information Act. In addition to the detailed guide offered by the SC Press Association, the Municipal Association of SC has numerous resources on how cities and towns can comply with FOIA requirements. 

Sharing public meeting information

FOIA requires cities and towns to notify the public about public meetings at least 24 hours in advance. Municipalities must provide the agenda to the local media or anyone who requests it, and post it at the meeting location and on their website, if they have one. Some municipalities, however, take additional steps to share information about what’s happening in their meetings beyond the minimum required by law. This recent article in the Association’s Uptown magazine highlights the efforts of cities like Greer, Tega Cay and Yemassee to make information available through as many channels as possible.

FOIA requires public notice in the case of a “convening of a quorum” of a public body like a city council — the number of members necessary to take action— and that sometimes leads to questions about a so-called “incidental quorum,” which could be councilmembers gathering at a conference or holiday event. Another recent Uptown article explored this issue, finding that public notice for this kind of meeting is generally not necessary, as long as the quorum does not act on or discuss matters under their jurisdiction. 

Managing public meetings 

FOIA sets requirements for how public meetings proceed, such as the use of executive sessions, a period of the meeting that is closed to the public, for certain very specific purposes. The law sets requirements for how a council may enter into the executive session and how it handles an executive session once it begins. This article addresses many of the legal considerations involved in conducting executive sessions. 

There are several instances where state law requires city councils to hold public hearings, like prior to adoption of the annual budget. However, no state law, in FOIA or otherwise, requires city councils to host regular public comment sessions, although many councils choose to offer public comment periods as a way for residents to communicate with their government. Even in the absence of legal requirements, councils should take care to handle their public comment periods fairly and to keep them productive. This article covers some of the best practices for managing them. 

Maintaining records 

South Carolina’s Public Records Act and FOIA cover the variety of documents that count as “public records,” which need to be retained and released upon request. This Uptown article covers how to maintain those electronic records properly.

Releasing records

Requesting information pursuant to the SC Freedom of Information Act is commonly known as a FOIA request, and because of the staff time and resources involved, the law permits municipalities to charge for the production of records. Uptown has offered information on what municipalities should consider when setting fee schedules for FOIA requests, as well as what to know about releasing the body-worn camera footage of police officers.

FOIA also sets requirements for releasing the names of finalists for a job position, specifically “not fewer than the final three applicants.” This article discusses how to manage job finalist pools to fulfill that requirement without creating unintended issues. 

Proactive steps

For cities and towns with websites, FOIA requires that they post public body meeting agendas on the website at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting, similar to the requirement of posting the agenda in the physical location of the meeting within that timeframe and notifying local news media and anyone else who has requested such agendas. 

When addressing FOIA-related issues, municipal officials should always remember that they can be proactive and post other commonly sought-after public information on the city’s website as well — meeting minutes, ordinances, planning documents and financial reports, among others. This can reduce staff time fulfilling requests for the information, can reduce the need to calculate fees in some cases, and can help bolster public trust as well.