S.C. Becoming More Secretive

Columbia, SC (WLTX) Watchdog groups in South Carolina are worried that several recent state Supreme Court rulings and other actions are making the state more secretive, making it harder for you to follow your government.

One Supreme Court ruling was that public bodies do not have to publish agendas ahead of time. "Without an advance agenda, they (the public) don't know what's going to be discussed at their school board or their county council or city council meeting, and very important issues, they won't have a chance to speak about them," says Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association.

The court also ruled that autopsy reports can be kept secret, saying they're medical records. But John Crangle, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause in South Carolina, says, "The opinion of the Supreme Court that autopsy reports are medical records is nonsense on its face. Dead people don't have a medical condition and they have no interest in privacy, either; they're dead. So that was an idiotic decision."

The court also ruled that an upcoming court hearing must be secret about whether state Attorney General Alan Wilson should be disqualified from continuing his investigation into House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

In a non-court-related action, the State Ethics Commission recently adopted a policy that only its executive director could speak to the media. In the past, the commission's attorney had also spoken to reporters about ethics cases and issues. The new policy means less access to information.

And Rogers says there are also more and more cases of local sheriff's departments and other agencies charging high fees for public records. In some cases, a sheriff's department will charge a news outlet $15 just to get a copy of an incident report to find out what happened at a crime scene.

Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, says he's already working on a bill to be pre-filed in December to require public bodies to publish agendas before their meetings.

"People have to be aware of it," he says. "They may want to come and discuss the items that are up on the agenda for public debate. I think it's just part of the democratic process. For it to work, you've got to have open government as much as one possibly can."

He says he'll also meet with coroners to discuss their concerns about autopsy reports and privacy.

Rogers says there have been attempts to strengthen South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act, but the bill has failed the last two years.


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