Last updated: August 26. 2014 8:52PM - 116 Views
By Don Kausler Jr. Contributing Columnist

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The pulpit is calling. It’s time to do a little preaching.

The subject isn’t fresh. The spin is different. The old sermon is about FOI. The new message is about FYI.

For your information, FOI stands for Freedom of Information. Hopefully, that is not new information.

For your information, FOI is information for you.

You thought it was for journalists? You thought wrong. FOI and FYI should be blended into something that you need to grasp: freedom of your information. FOYI.

We think of ourselves as bulldogs. Our mission is to protect you from ignorant or deceptive and even devious public bodies. We make a lot of noise when sunshine laws are trampled upon.

We need to do a better job of inspiring citizens — you — to make noise. Whimpers are better than silence, but shouts are needed to make a difference. Bark. Growl. Show your teeth. Be ready to bite at the ballot box.

We need to unite. “We” should be journalists and citizens. Rather, citizens and journalists. Without more of a grassroots push for FOI reform, government could run amok.

Let’s review, because 2014 was not a good year. A bill proposing major changes in the Freedom of Information Act died in the General Assembly, never getting out of committee. So much for reducing excessive charges for information and reducing response times to fulfill requests. So much for eliminating unreasonable redactions in reports. So much for making the appeal route more reasonable.

It was bad enough that “we” did not move forward.

Incredibly, we moved backward. Two Supreme Court rulings were stunning setbacks.

First, in June, the court ruled unanimously that not only can public bodies change agendas at the last minute, but they don’t have to post agendas at all in advance of meetings. Think about that. A council doesn’t have to tell you that it wants to discuss raising your taxes.

Then, in July, the court ruled that autopsy records are medical records, making them exempt from release under the FOIA. Now when an innocent person is shot in the back by a police officer, how are we supposed to know?

Reversing the ruling on agendas should be at the top of “our” agenda for 2015. In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted a flaw in the law and sent a subtle message to the legislature to fix wording in the FOIA.

The problem is, the South Carolina Association of Counties and the Municipal Association of South Carolina seem to like this new freedom. You can bet the two organizations will lobby against rewording the FOIA section on agendas.

“We” have some friends in the legislature. Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, is a longtime supporter of open government and has indicated a willingness to propose legislation that would undo what the Supreme Court undid. It helps that Martin is the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman.

Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, introduced an FOIA reform bill two years ago and isn’t giving up the fight. He’s a former broadcast journalist.

Rep. Weston Newton, R-Beaufort, strongly supports ending legislative exemption to the FOIA.

These legislators could use your support, but the real work involves selling other legislators on the need for reform. They need to hear from constituents who are sick and tired of secret government and want to see substantive changes.

So this is a call to call your representatives. Talk to them at public events and party gatherings. Send them letters and/or emails. Look them up on scstatehouse.gov and click where it says you can send a message. Write letters to the editor.

Tell them to get this “Act” together or else.

Sadly, they have tuned out journalists.

Gladly, they should listen to the people who vote.

FYI, you have more power than you think.

Don Kausler Jr. is regional editor of the Morning News in Florence. Contact him at 843-317-7250 or by email at dkausler@florencenews.com.

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