S.C. reaches compromise on open meeting fix

Morris News Service: By Sarita Chourey, May 28, 2015

COLUMBIA — It may be illegal soon for elected officials in South Carolina to bypass the public about what they’re going to do during public meetings.

A six-member conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers approved a bill that would tighten the state’s open meetings law. The bill would not only explicitly require that agendas be posted ahead of public meetings, it would restrict officials’ ability to add items to the agenda after the meeting had started.

Under the bill, an item could be added to the agenda during the meeting if there is a two-thirds vote of the members present and voting.

But transparency advocates pushed for more and succeeded.

The bill now says that if the item in question is either one in which the public body may take a final action or one that the public hasn’t had a chance to comment on beforehand, the item can only be added if a two-thirds vote determines that the matter is an emergency or one under exigent circumstances.

After the vote, Rep. Weston Newton, a Bluffton Republican and one of the six conferees, said he was satisfied with the compromise the committee had reached.

“You can’t have two readings for something that’s controversial and then in the middle of the next council meeting pop up and add it to the agenda and get a two-thirds vote and get it passed,” said Newton, who was chairman of Beaufort County Council for 10 years.

“You’d have to have that special finding as to why you’re taking this action without giving the public notice.”

One example of an issue that might meet the high threshold and be allowed to be added to the agenda during the meeting: A court-ordered settlement with a deadline.

“The idea is never to tie the hands (of officials), but to make sure that the public is given appropriate advance notice of what their government is doing,” Newton said.

The bill, S.11, is an attempt to fix holes in the state Freedom of Information Act, which the S.C. Supreme Court identified last year. The court had said public bodies are not required by law to provide an agenda for a regularly scheduled meeting, and that it’s legal to amend an agenda for a regularly scheduled meeting if one is posted.

The S.C. Municipal Association and others have said their members already use agendas, despite what the Supreme Court revealed.

In September, Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, testified before a committee on the topic to urge lawmakers to protect the public.

“I think the public and the press clearly need to know what’s going on in advance of the meeting … so they can show up if they’re concerned about a hog farm going in or whatever,” Rogers said.

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