Packet, Gazette editor McAden retires, closing 42-year journalism career
By David Lauderdale
The Island Packet
Fitz McAden retires Friday as executive editor of The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
His 42-year newspaper career has been marked by a dogged pursuit of stories and public accountability.
"You have to dig," he said. "It's not about being negative; it's about getting to the bottom of things and not just trimming the treetops. You've got to get to the bottom of it."
McAden started as a reporter for The Miami Herald. He had been state editor at the Herald and news editor at The State in Columbia when he took the job at the Packet in February 1995. He added the Gazette duties in 2008.
"The decision to bring Fitz to the Lowcountry was the best decision of my professional career," said Sara Johnson Borton, president and publisher of the newspapers. "Not only is Fitz a great journalist, he has a passion for our business. His passion for news has had a lasting impact on hundreds of journalists who have had the privilege of working for him."
McClatchy president and chief executive officer Patrick J. Talamantes said he is thankful for McAden's effort, body of work and support over the years.
"I got to know Fitz relatively early in my time at McClatchy," Talamantes said. "What impressed me off the bat -- an impression that has not changed -- was his focus on good stories and the communities those stories helped, his willingness to roll up his sleeves and get the work done, and his genuine desire to help young journalists learn the ropes, do well, and advance in their careers."
During McAden's tenure in the Lowcountry, the newspapers added a Saturday edition, making them seven-day dailies for the first time; added an online edition updated nightly in 1997; went through a redesign as a new press and new building came online in 2007; evacuated the newsroom en masse twice during hurricane threats; published an "extra" edition on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001; combined the Packet and Gazette newsroom staffs; survived a major downturn in the economy; and evolved into a 24-hour news production team delivering video, audio, graphics and text to smartphones, tablets and laptops in addition to a morning newspaper in print.
His news staff has won scores of awards from the S.C. Press Association, and about a dozen Presidents Awards, McClatchy's highest recognition for journalism excellence in which the work of the local staff has been judged against as many as 30 dailies nationwide.
When the Packet was named one of "10 Newspapers That Do it Right" nationally in 2004 by Editor & Publisher magazine, it cited "the paper's watchdog role, reflected in stories such as the revelation that a local marina dredging project was dumping the muck into a nearby sound instead of further out in the ocean, and an investigation into municipal court backlogs."
McAden led deep probes into how local and state courts and regulatory agencies dealt with a case of physician misconduct; the Beaufort County EMS response to a brutal beating in Bluffton; a child killed in a middle school restroom; improperly installed roof trusses in hundreds of homes that had passed county inspection; the messy private affairs of a state representative who was seeking statewide office; complaints against a timeshare company; fees a utility charged to the poor even though they did not tap into new water lines; haphazard county real estate assessments; the bungled attempt to try suspects in the death of an 8-year-old boy caught in the crossfire of a gun battle; and the unsolved apparent murder of a couple who disappeared without a trace.
In many cases, the digging has led to walls of secrecy set up by public bodies and their attorneys, by government workers and judges.
"The public records thing is a battle that is never won," McAden said this week. "You just have to keep pushing to get the information people need to know and have a right to."
McAden said he has often felt pushback from readers and local leaders.
He has been known to push his staff hard. Even though he likes to tell stories and pull practical jokes, he set the newsroom tone with his typical 12-hour work days, pecking with two fingers at a keyboard late at night. His work day got much longer on Fridays. Staffers sometimes got emails from him that were sent as late as 4 a.m. He said the investigations, which come on top of routine daily production, could not be done without a good staff.
"We want to do the stories that make a difference and bring about change for the better," McAden said. "Not that we are the sole arbiters of that. We're an institution, too, and all institutions are imperfect. Newspapers can come across as sort of a scold, a constant scold. That's one of the problems the media has, but it's a hard thing to avoid if you do your job right."
McAden said his wife, Jill McAden, principal of Hilton Head Island Elementary School, has been very tolerant of his job. And his two sons, James and Andrew, now college graduates and on their own, learned as boys that "dropping by the office for 15 minutes" meant hours away from home.
McAden, who will turn 65 next week, is a native of Charlotte who was reared in Columbia in a family of textiles executives. He said he has not had time to make retirement plans.
"Mow the lawn," he said. "Be a better husband. Be a better father."
"Fitz has been a trusted colleague as well as a wonderful friend," said publisher Borton. "I will miss him terribly. He's made life in the Lowcountry better for all of us over the last 19 years."
A search is underway for McAden's replacement. Managing Editor Jeff Kidd will fulfill McAden's duties until a new editor is named.
Greenville News publisher Brandt announces retirement
By Ron Barnett
The Greenville News
Steve Brandt, president and publisher of The Greenville News Media Group, announced on Friday that he plans to retire on Oct. 31 after 36 years with the company.
He broke the news to employees with a light-hearted quiz about the name of a 1970 George Harrison album: "All Things Must Pass."
"This is a bittersweet moment for me," Brandt said. "I love this newspaper and my colleagues here, but I am looking forward to pursuing other interests. It is time to hand the reins to a new leader."
In addition to leading the newspaper through its transition from ownership by Multimedia Co. to becoming part of Gannett, and from the heyday of print into the digital age, Brandt has served in a variety of community leadership roles, including the development of the Peace Center for the Performing Arts, across the street from the newspaper office at the corner of Main and Broad.
Dave Neill, Carolinas regional president for Gannett and publisher of The Asheville Citizen-Times, will take on the additional responsibility of publisher of The Greenville News Media Group on Sept. 1. Brandt will continue as president through Oct. 31.
"Steve's leadership of the newspaper and dedicated service to the community over last 36 years are commendable. One can assume his numerous contributions have helped make Greenville a better place to live and work," Neill said.
"Steve has been a trusted advisor and mentor to me over the last 10 months, and I look forward to his continued guidance and support in the future."
Brandt, 62, began his career with The Greenville News-Piedmont Co. in 1978 and held a number of positions before becoming president and publisher in 1993. Following Gannett's acquisition of Multimedia in 1995, Brandt served as president and publisher of The Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle.
He returned to Greenville as publisher in 1999.
Brandt was a five-time winner of Gannett's President's Ring for Excellence and served as president of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association and the South Carolina Press Association. Read more.
Officials across South Carolina increasingly keeping public in the dark
By John Monk and Clif LeBlanc
COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina’s open meetings and records law, designed to make government transparent and keep citizens informed, increasingly is being eroded by some state and local public officials.
Whether it is the result of court decisions, acts by elected officials, or bureaucrats who make decisions such as charging the public high prices to copy public records, people acting in the name of government are taking actions that keep the public in the dark.
The problem seems to have accelerated in the past several months.
“Politicians and bureaucrats don’t want people to know what they are doing,” said John Crangle, executive director of S.C. Common Cause, a watchdog group. “They don’t want to be inconvenienced by the public, even though the public is their boss.”
Even the S.C. Supreme Court, which in the past could usually be relied upon to uphold the public’s right to know, has joined the march to more secrecy. Read more.
When does a document become a public record?
By Jay Bender, SCPA Attorney
You may have heard that the State Ethics Commission has a new media policy. Commission Chair James Burns announced at the Commission meeting last week that the Commission would be studying a new policy relating to who could speak for the agency. Without entertaining a motion or taking a vote Burns announced that until a new policy were adopted the interim policy would be that Commission Executive Director Herb Hayden would be the only one authorized to speak on behalf of the agency.
Leaving aside for the moment whether the pronouncement of an interim policy under those circumstances was consistent with the law regarding the conduct of public business, I would like to focus on the interim policy itself.
The first Executive Director of the Ethics Commission was Gary Baker who served for 23 years. In those years Baker was always available to respond to a reporter’s questions about the meaning of the ethics law and the requirements to satisfy the law. Following Baker’s retirement Hayden became Executive Director and followed Baker’s practice of being available to explain the law.
Cathy Hazelwood, Deputy Director and General Counsel for the Commission has for years been available along with Hayden to respond to questions from reporters and the public about the operation of the Commission and the requirements of the law. Hazelwood earned the reputation of being an expert on the law who could explain it in ways that the public could understand. If asked about a specific case during a time when comment is forbidden by law, Hazelwood would politely but firmly decline comment.
Many reporters found Hazelwood to be more readily available for comment than Hayden, and over time Hazelwood’s name became associated with most comments from the Commission. And, when you want a legal opinion, it is a good thing to ask the agency’s lawyer.
After Burns announced the new interim policy, Hazelwood is no longer authorized to speak for the agency. Burns has said that the decision is to forestall an impression that as prosecutor Hazelwood has made up her mind about a case. Well, since prosecutors must always make a decision about possible guilt prior to initiating a prosecution, that reasoning rings hollow.
Since the members of the Commissions are the ones who sit in judgment, comments by individual commissioners about a case might be inappropriate, but an explanation by the lawyer for the Commission about what the law requires is not inappropriate.
There is speculation that the gagging of Hazelwood is in retaliation for her sending a letter to Gov. Haley demanding reimbursement for security provided by the state when the governor was attending political fund-raising events in North Carolina. When a request was made for the letter under the Freedom of Information Act, Hayden is said to have replied that the letter was destroyed. Turns out the letter wasn’t destroyed and a copy found its way to reporters.
Was the letter from Hazelwood a public record?
The FOIA provides that any document “prepared, owned, used or in the possession of” a public body is a “public record” subject to the disclosure requirements of the law. Even if the letter had never been sent, the draft of the letter in the possession of the public body was a public record. In a similar vein, proposed minutes of public body meetings become public records upon their preparation, not upon their approval.
Is it appropriate to destroy public records?
All state agencies are required to work with the Department of Archives and History to develop a record retention policy, but it seems that most have not. I don’t know if the Ethics Commission has a records retention policy, but if it does, I suspect it does not have a provision that says drafts of letters stating the position of the agency are to be destroyed. Section 30-1-30 of the South Carolina Code of Laws makes it a misdemeanor to destroy a public record.
At my office we have a rubber stamp that is used with red ink to mark “DRAFT” on documents not in final form. If the Hazelwood letter were a draft, and not sent, it nevertheless was a public record subject to the disclosure requirements of the FOIA. If the letter were sent and the position stated in the letter subsequently modified, there should have been a second letter stating the modification of the agency’s position and not a suggestion that the initial letter be destroyed.
I have argued for some time now that we don’t need ethics reform. We need cultural reform. We need to develop a culture that does not tolerate misconduct by public officials and the silencing of those with the courage to speak on the record about misconduct. Ironically, it seems that cultural reform might now be necessary at the Ethics Commission.
Background, commentary on the autopsy ruling from the reporter involved in the case
By Joe Perry
In light of the recent S.C. Supreme Court ruling in Perry v. Bullock, I've decided to weigh in on the matter, as I'm the guy whose reporting was the catalyst for the case. I also wanted to clear up a few things, add some context and pose a few questions.
From November 2005 to November 2011, I worked for The Sumter Item. I resigned as senior staff writer to be a stay at home dad. I now work part-time for The Manning Times and do freelance work as well.
Not one single press outlet in the state bothered to contact me, which I found odd, as I was a co-plaintiff, along with my former employer, Osteen Publishing.
It's not sour grapes, I assure you. We lost, after all, and I greatly respect and admire Hubert Osteen for a multitude of reasons. At any rate, this is what happened:
Early on Sept. 28, 2010, there was a carjacking in Sumter in a neighborhood off Alice Drive, a busy thoroughfare. About two hours later, shortly after 9 a.m., two city police officers encountered Aaron Jacobs, 25, walking along Patriot Parkway, another busy road about five or six miles away.
Police said Jacobs fit the description of the carjacking suspect and stopped to question him.
Some sort of confrontation ensued. Police said Jacobs resisted a weapons pat down and one of the officers grabbed his shirt, which came off as he was fleeing the scene.
The two officers said they saw a gun tucked in the waistband of Jacobs' pants, and as he was running away, he pulled the gun and turned toward them. One of the officers opened fire, pulling the trigger nine times.
The city used fire trucks to shut down Patriot Parkway. Officials refused to release the names of the officers involved, citing an unspecified threat against them. (I later learned neither SLED nor the sheriff's office were investigating any such threat.) Although we all know SLED investigates officer-involved shootings, the Sumter County Sheriff's Office actually authored an incident report, but not as an investigation of any sort. The deputy police chief -- now Chief Russell Roark -- asked Sheriff Anthony Dennis to omit the names of the officers involved and Dennis complied. (Dennis later released a complete and unredacted supplemental report to me with the officers' names.)
Reggie Lloyd, who was director of SLED at the time, came to town and a press conference was held. Lloyd gave me his cell number and told me not to hesitate to call.
Fast forward to summer 2011. Third Circuit Solicitor Chip Finney had cleared the two officers involved in the shooting, deeming it justified. After many, many phone conversations and several e-mails with Lloyd, he agreed to release the entire SLED file on the shooting, and on June 22, 2011, I drove to headquarters and was given a fat envelope containing about 60 or 70 pages.
At the end of the file was the autopsy report, which showed Jacobs was shot twice in the back of the head and twice in the back.
If the former director of our state's top law enforcement agency -- and a former U.S. Attorney and circuit court judge -- recognized the autopsy report to be a public record, how can our highest court take an opposite stance?
If I had been a defense attorney, as our solicitor used to be, I would've had a field day with the other reports in the file, which showed:
- No conclusive gunshot residue on Jacobs' hands.
- Both officers gave their statements two days after the shooting. The statements were nearly identical.
- The second officer who said he didn't fire his gun wasn't tested for GSR. The officer who fired nine shots didn't test positively for GSR.
- A gun police said belonged to Jacobs was found 39 feet from his body and the locking mechanism for the magazine was broken.
- The bullets removed from Jacobs didn't conclusively match up with the officer's weapon.
And there was indeed some medical history in the report. Jacobs, the autopsy report said, had an enlarged heart -- easy enough to black out with a marker as I recall that was the only mention of his medical history. One line in a four or five page report. Jacobs also had marijuana in his system and a bag of it in his pocket. Is it possible he was trying to throw away his weed while fleeing and it was mistaken for a gun? Does anyone think it's reasonable for someone to pull a gun on two cops over a bag of weed?
I tracked down an eyewitness from one of the reports. He told me this: "I didn't see no gun, he ain't pulled no gun. Man, he got out of that shirt and took off running."
No gun. Not in his waistband, not in his hands. Which is troubling enough for a reporter to hear. Without the autopsy report, however, the picture was incomplete.
Here's my takeaway from all of this: In December 2010, a Richland County teenager was arrested and charged with the carjacking. So police stopped the wrong person. Were the police within their rights to stop Jacobs? Sure they were. And if you pull a gun on cops -- really anyone these days -- all bets are off. But they stopped the wrong person, period, and it's unknown if Jacobs actually pulled a gun. Why was the Sumter Police Department adamant about refusing to name the officers involved? Does it seem likely that a person fleeing police -- especially someone with a drug charge in his past, as Jacobs' record showed, and therefore familiar with law enforcement -- would turn to aim a gun at police as he's running away? Is that even physically possible? Did Jacobs' enlarged heart factor into his death? Of course not. He was shot four times.
His medical history was a moot point.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that The Sumter Item sued Sumter County Coroner Bill Gamble in 1989 to get an autopsy report and a circuit court judge ordered Gamble to release the report.
So we lost, and that doesn't bode well for the press or the public. Nonetheless, I salute Hubert Osteen for standing on principle and fighting the good fight. I salute Reggie Lloyd for following through with a promise he made to me, and I salute the lone dissenter, Justice Pleicones, whose display of common sense is unfortunately the exception and not the rule.
Bother your legislators. We need to change the law.
Editorial: A disturbing trend
We wrote recently of the disturbing trend in the White House of spinning every issue through press spokesmen rather than engaging in open questioning about issues of interest to Americans. A lack of transparency isn’t limited to the federal government, as the S.C. Supreme Court has recently issued two troubling rulings which limit public access in the Palmetto State.
One ruling involves autopsy reports; the high court ruled that they can be deemed medical records and thus can be kept secret. The case involved a Sumter incident in which police killed a man; they claimed he had fired first and they had merely defended themselves. But the autopsy report, which was obtained by The Item, Sumter’s newspaper, through a separate source, said the deceased man had no gunpowder residue on his hands and stated he’d been shot in the back. It begs the question: if authorities were confident proper procedures had been followed, why did they insist on not letting the autopsy results out?
Equally disturbing is a ruling by the Supreme Court that public bodies can change their agendas at the last minutes without notifying anyone. But the high court went one step further than that, saying that agendas aren’t necessary for regularly scheduled meetings. That’s akin to telling the public that citizens have no right to know what’s going to be discussed by elective and appointive bodies.
In many instances, these disagreements are seen as press battles, but of course they affect everyone. Openness in government is important, and these latest rulings by Supreme Court justices show they have little regard for letting us all know what’s going on.
S.C. Supreme Court ignored FOIA in autopsy ruling
Originally published 7/21/14
By Martin Cahn
Let’s make something perfectly clear: The S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is not dead, but the S.C. Supreme Court is sure acting like they’re trying to kill it.
OK, perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh, but last week’s 4-1 ruling concluding that autopsy reports are medical records exempt from the FOIA sure feels like another nail in the open government coffin.
On June 30, I wrote that the state Supreme Court’s ruling on meeting agendas was wrong in that it leaves open the possibility of public bodies never publishing an agenda ever again. Last week, I wrote that the Court’s ruling in the House Speaker Bobby Harrell could -- but hopefully won’t -- lead to having all grand jury matters secret, even if those matters don’t take place in the grand jury room.
And here we are again.
I think you can tell -- from Robert Ariail’s cartoon on the top of this page to S.C. Press Association (SCPA) Executive Director Bill Rogers’ op-ed on Friday along with that day’s editorial about President Barack Obama’s not-so-transparent administration -- we are very serious about these matters.
And we are serious about them not for our own sake as journalists, but for your sake. You have the right to know what your city or county council or school board is planning to discuss and vote on. You have the right to be able to walk into a courtroom and know whether or not the state’s top prosecutor is going to be in charge of an inquiry into possible criminal activity by a sitting legislator. For that matter, you have the right to have someone other than that legislator’s peers determine whether or not he or she should be punished for alleged crimes.
And you certainly have the right to know exactly what a coroner has concluded about someone’s death -- and why they made that conclusion -- when there are questions as to exactly what happened. Especially when that death was caused by a sworn law enforcement officer.
That was the case at hand before the S.C. Supreme Court on July 15. Our journalistic neighbors to the south, The Sumter Item, had been covering a story about a police-related shooting in September 2010 that killed a man named Aaron Lee Jacobs. As Rogers pointed out in his op-ed Friday, the Item reported that the officer shot Jacobs in the back, despite the Sumter Police Department’s claim that the officer fired in self-defense.
Officers thought Jacobs was a suspected carjacker. After Jacobs’ death, however, officers arrested a teenage boy for the carjacking. They’d confronted and shot the wrong man.
The Sumter Police Department did not just refuse to release an incident report in the case (claiming that because the S.C. Law Enforcement Division [SLED] was investigating), but claimed there wasn’t an incident report to produce.
With no help from SLED, the Item turned to Sumter Coroner Harvin Bullock for a look at Jacobs’ autopsy report. Bullock and Sumter County Attorney Johnathan Bryan claimed autopsy reports are medical records -- a claim supported by others, including S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, but rejected by the SCPA and open government advocates.
As it turns out, the Item was able to obtain the report from elsewhere -- a report that concluded the officer shot Jacobs in the back.
Autopsy reports, the government and state Supreme Court contend, are medical records because they contain medical information. Bullock even cited the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) as requiring him to block access to the report. However, a review of the HIPAA specifically points out that, according to the Association of Health Care Journalists, autopsy records “are not protected health information to the extent they are maintained by state agencies. In addition, if a state FOIA law designates death records and/or autopsy reports as public information that must be disclosed, covered entities may disclose that protected health information without an authorization.”
So, let’s check the S.C. FOIA. Section 30-4-40 covers matters exempt from disclosure. Under that section, paragraph 18 states “Photographs, videos, and other visual images, and audio recordings of and related to the performance of an autopsy, except that the photographs, videos, images, or recordings may be viewed and used by” specific people listed elsewhere in the state code.
As the SCPA points out in its “plain English” explanation of this paragraph, the FOIA does not exempt the reports themselves, only those photos, videos, other images and recordings associated with them.
So, bottom line, the S.C. Supreme Court completely ignored the S.C. FOIA.
The majority in its opinion said -- as it pretty much did on the agenda ruling several weeks ago -- that those who don’t like their conclusion should get the legislature to change the law.
That should definitely be done in response to the agenda ruling, as I pointed out several weeks ago. In this case, though, the FOIA is already clear enough: by simple omission in its exemption section, autopsy reports in and of themselves are not exempt.
Privacy advocates may claim a newspaper shouldn’t be poking around an autopsy. But non-pertinent information can be blacked out. We need to shed this particular layer of privacy in order to shed light where it’s needed.
(Martin L. Cahn is the editor of the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/martin.l.cahn. Email responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Ruling could bar farmer from henhouse
Originally published 7/14/14
By Martin Cahn
Well, at least they got one thing right.
Wednesday, justices of the S.C. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson -- wait, let me qualify this as it really should be -- that a state grand jury can continue looking into allegations of public corruption against S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
Harrell may be “disappointed with the court’s ruling,” as he said in a press release, and Wilson might be justified in celebrating a little bit, but the justices’ ruling on the state grand jury is more a win for that system than it is of Wilson.
In fact, justices left the door wide open to replace Wilson as the person leading the grand jury’s investigation.
That, in my opinion is wrong.
Perhaps I’m being a little dramatic? What the justices actually said was that the circuit court, where this case began, should be the venue in which a decision on Wilson’s involvement should be made.
On the other hand, it’s in the circuit court where things went sideways in this case. It was in such a courtroom where Judge L. Casey Manning -- going beyond the arguments either side was making -- ruled that only the S.C. House Ethics Committee should investigate the allegations against Harrell.
I’ve seen Manning in action before, right here in Kershaw County, presiding over primarily criminal cases. As with any judge, there are decisions he’s made I agreed with and others I did not. (I must also tell you that Manning has a wicked sense of humor, of which I’ve been on the receiving end at least twice that I can remember. I know it was all in good fun, of course. At least I think so.)
However, I did not agree with his ruling in this case.
I fully admit I’m not a legal expert, but it seems clear to me -- and if it does for me, it should for almost any lay person -- that Wilson has the right to investigate any criminal allegation levied against any citizen of this state, including our legislators. Claiming otherwise puts us clearly in what cartoonist Robert Ariail once depicted as allowing the fox to go back to “his” henhouse. I’d go even further: the foxes have gotten rid of the hens and turned the legislature into a fox den.
At least, that’s what it seemed Manning was allowing Harrell and those legislators who think as he does to do. Luckily, our state’s highest court decided that shouldn’t be the case.
Unfortunately, by ruling that Manning or (hopefully) some other circuit court judge should still decide if Wilson ought to be in charge of a grand jury case against a legislator brings us back to the henhouse analogy: the farmer could be barred from even checking the henhouse.
State law is pretty clear about the Attorney General’s role with grand juries: “The Attorney General or his designee shall attend sessions of a state grand jury and shall serve as its legal advisor. The Attorney General or his designee shall examine witnesses, present evidence, and draft indictments and reports upon the direction of a state grand jury.”
However, an attorney general can be disqualified if a conflict of interest is determined. I don’t see where Wilson has a conflict of interest concerning Harrell, though.
Another issue came up in the justice’s ruling that’s troubled a few people. A footnote on page 12 of the ruling reads as follows:
“Due to the secrecy afforded state grand jury proceedings, future arguments regarding jurisdiction, or any other ancillary matter, should be held in camera,” which means in secret.
I’ve checked the state code and -- as much as I am for as much openness as possible, including in our courts -- the justices may have gotten this one right ... but perhaps not completely.
“State grand juries are secret,” the state code reads. The only people allowed in a state grand jury proceeding are the jurors themselves, the attorney general or designee, court reporter, translator and testifying witnesses (one at a time). Unless otherwise directed by the court, grand jury testimony can only be revealed to the attorney general or designee; government personnel necessary to assist the attorney general in enforcing the state’s criminal laws; and, of course, attorneys representing anyone who provides testimony to a grand jury.
In all those cases, each must keep those proceedings secret.
However, I see nothing about keeping secret aspects of a case that take place away from the ears and eyes of grand jurors.
In other words, if a hearing to determine Wilson’s continued leadership of the investigation against Harrell is held in a circuit court judge’s courtroom and not in the presence of the grand jury, I don’t see anything in state law that would keep the public from attending.
In fact, I would insist that such matters be open. As long as nothing that would go before the grand jury is revealed in open court (there’s a reason for sidebars, folks), I believe the public has a right to know exactly who is going to be leading investigations against a sitting legislator and, if not, why. Of course, perhaps it’s just not possible to do that without exposing what a grand jury should hear in secret.
Harrell says Wilson is on a political witch hunt, and that he hasn’t shown that he’s violated any laws. Somehow, though, I don’t think Wilson would have fought this hard for nothing.
At least we can be glad that it will be grand jurors -- regular John and Jane Citizens -- who will be determining if Bobby Harrell broke the law and not his fellow foxes … er, legislators.
(Martin L. Cahn is the editor of the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/martin.l.cahn. Email responses to email@example.com.)
Court ruling shows FOIA needs revision
Originally published 6/30/14
By Martin Cahn
Two years ago, I applauded a S.C. Court of Appeals ruling that Saluda County Council violated the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 2008 by adding to an already published agenda for one of its regular meetings. I did so because I, as I believe my fellow journalists do, that a) publishing an agenda provides proper notice to citizens of what a public body intends to consider at its regular meetings, and b) that adding items to an established agenda during a meeting is unfair to those citizens not in attendance who didn’t know about something ahead of time they might have wanted to hear or speak up about.
Recently, the S.C. Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling because the FOIA includes the following language concerning meeting agendas: “Agenda, if any (my emphasis), for regularly scheduled meetings must be posted on a bulletin board at the office or meeting place of the public body at least twenty-four hours prior to such meetings.”
Justices ruled not only that there is no language keeping public bodies from amending agendas at any time, including during meetings, but that the “if any” phrase means public bodies need never again publish any sort of agenda prior to a regular meeting (they would still have to for emergency or special called meetings).
While the Court’s ruling is technically correct, I would argue that this negates the intent the crafters of the S.C. FOIA had in ensuring open government here in our state. There are two steps to take, in my opinion: 1) urge public bodies to continue publishing agendas -- and not amending them during meetings -- despite this ruling; and 2) work to change the language of the FOIA so as to require all public bodies to publish agendas no less than 24 hours before all meetings. Personally, in order to facilitate publication by the media and, therefore, better notice to the public, I’d like to see this increased to 48 hours.
The good news for us here in Kershaw County is that our local governments are pretty good about agendas. In addition to physically posting on meeting room doors, etc.:
• Camden City Council not only publishes its agendas well ahead of time but provides the media with its entire agenda packet so that we can, if we choose, give you, the public, even more information about what’s coming up.
• Kershaw County Council provides its agendas via email to the media. Although it does not provide an entire packet as the city does, County Administrator Vic Carpenter is always willing to provide additional information whenever asked.
• The Kershaw County Board of School Trustees places its agenda and supporting documentation online for everyone to see.
Early indications are, specifically from county council, that our local officials plan to continue publishing agendas and amend them only when absolutely necessary.
If I have any complaint about some of our local agendas is that they sometimes do not clearly spell out the fact that a vote will be taken on certain items. However, in checking with experts at the S.C. Press Association (SCPA), the word “vote” doesn’t have to appear on any agenda. As long as the public knows that an item is even coming up for discussion, that’s considered sufficient. So be it.
Just because our local public bodies are pretty good about agendas now doesn’t mean future iterations of councils and boards won’t take advantage of the Court’s ruling. And, just to broaden things a bit, there are many public bodies throughout the state that are very, very bad on just about every aspect of their meetings.
However, strengthening the S.C. FOIA would be easy to do. In that one quoted sentence from the FOIA, simply remove the words “if any” and replace “regularly scheduled” with “all.” SCPA officials tell me they are already looking into fighting for some type of revision during the next legislative session.
Having our legislators and the governor agree to this would speak very highly of their collective support of open government. The question is, do they have the will?
I’m afraid that -- and I’m speaking overall because our local delegation is pretty fantastic in my book -- the General Assembly collectively is not real keen on openness. Just look at the whole Bobby Harrell mess. If a number of editorials I’ve read from around the state are any indication, my peers aren’t too confident that legislators won’t want to help out their fellow elected officials on the local level who’d rather work in secret. All they have to do is ... nothing.
I happen to know from experience that S.C.’s FOIA is one of the best in the nation. There have been times when I’ve sought what I knew to be public information here in another state only to have officials tell me they are not required to give out that particular information -- even to their own residents.
All kinds of things are required to be out in the open in South Carolina that are not in other states. Unfortunately, the S.C. Supreme Court’s ruling weakens this wonderful law and sets us up for further open government failure.
Again, the S.C. FOIA is good law. We just all need to fight to make it even better for the benefit of all our citizens.
(Martin L. Cahn is the editor of the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/martin.l.cahn. Email responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Supreme Court autopsy ruling trumps public accountability
Justices: Autopsy reports not public
By Bill Rogers
S.C. Press Association
For the second time in a month, the S.C. Supreme Court has ruled against openness and punted important issues back to the Legislature for change.
On Tuesday, the court ruled that autopsy records are exempt from release under the FOIA because they are medical records.
Why does this matter to the public?
It matters because the next time police shoot an innocent man, don’t expect the public to have access to the autopsy report giving the details of the death.
That is what this case was about… the shooting of an innocent suspect. Supposedly in self-defense. Problem is, the autopsy showed the suspect in Sumter County was shot in the back.
Can you see now why autopsy records should be public?
This is a terrible ruling that will allow coroners to withhold information the public has a need to know.
This case was really about public oversight, and the public lost.
The public also lost a few weeks ago when the high court ruled that not only could public bodies change meeting agendas at the last minute without notifying the public, but that agendas for public meetings were not even required.
I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve got enough sense to read this part of the FOIA: “All public bodies shall notify persons or organizations, local news media, or such other news media as may request notification of the times, dates, places and agenda of all public meetings…”
Pretty clear to a layman. But the court chose to focus on the wording for notification of regularly scheduled meetings at the beginning of the calendar year, where the wording said that notice must include the agenda, “if any.” If you announce a meeting to be held in October at the start of the calendar year, I can’t imagine having a meaningful agenda prepared. The law made it clear later that agendas must be available 24 hours in advance.
Why is this a problem for the public?
Because you won’t know what your councils or school boards will be discussing, so you won't be able to participate in the discussion.
These rulings send us back to secret government.
Sure, the Legislature can fix this. But will they? For the last two years, efforts at FOIA reform have failed.
It will fail again if the public and the media don’t demand FOIA and ethics reform.
Read the full text of the autopsy ruling here.
More commentary on this ruling:
Jay Bender, SCPA Attorney: "I am disappointed in the decision, and am concerned that the two most recent decisions of the Supreme Court seem to reverse a 30-year trend of construing the Freedom of Information Act to enhance the public’s ability to learn of public business whether by getting access to records or attending meetings where the subject of discussion is known in advance. I anticipate an effort in the General Assembly to clarify the law in favor of access, but I know there will be organizations supported by public funds lobbying against access on grounds that it is too inconvenient to involve the public in the public’s business. The most troubling aspect of today’s ruling is that the autopsy report provided by SLED was inconsistent with the statement made by police regarding the circumstances of the shooting death of a citizen. With this decision, I fear that the only version of events that will reach the public with be the one that exonerates government personnel from any claims of misconduct."
Hubert Osteen, Editor in Chief, The Sumter Item: "The South Carolina Supreme Court, in its infinitesimal wisdom, declared war Wednesday on the First Amendment and openness in government. The ruling was on an appeal by The Item and Osteen Publishing Co. of a circuit court’s decision supporting Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock’s refusal to release an autopsy report on the fatal shooting by Sumter police officers of Aaron Leon Jacobs in 2012. Bullock’s refusal was based on his contention that an autopsy was a medical record not subject to disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Supremes, with the exception of one, agreed, using all sorts of legalese to justify its decision. The lone dissenter was Justice Costa Pleicones. He showed far more understanding of what the S.C. Code means in its reference to the duties of coroners and medical examiners. We quote from his dissent: “(an autopsy report) must be furnished upon request to any party to whom the cause of death is a material issue.” And he goes on to say, “ In my view, this statute demonstrates that autopsy records are not required by law to be closed to the public under FOIA, and also establishes the legal standard for release of autopsy reports to the public….In my opinion, the majority errs when it affirms the circuit court’s holding that an autopsy report is a medical record and therefore absolutely exempt from disclosure under FOIA.”
The Supreme Court blundered in its irrational decision, and the losers in this case are the majority of South Carolinians who oppose secrecy in government and believe firmly in what the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is all about.
This is not the end of this issue but the beginning of another effort by newspapers and other media, with the support of like-minded citizens to strengthen FOIA so any alleged loopholes can’t be used to thwart the spirit of the law, which is the result of the high court’s ill-considered ruling."
Ruling limits breadth of state's Freedom of Information Act
By Bristow Marchant
The Sumter Item
With a ruling posted to its website Wednesday morning, the S.C. Supreme Court limited the scope of the state's Freedom of Information Act, a decision that advocates of open government fear will make it more difficult for the public to check the actions of government agencies and elected officials.
In a case initiated by The Sumter Item in response to a police-involved shooting, four of the court's five justices ruled that autopsy reports compiled by a county coroner's office as part of a law-enforcement investigation are private medical records and are exempt from public disclosure under FOIA.
Justice Kaye Hearn ruled the state's highest court is "compelled here by the plain meaning of the statutory term to conclude that an autopsy report is exempt from the FOIA's disclosure requirement." Hearn was joined in her opinion by Chief Justice Jean Toal and associate justices Donald Beatty and John Kittredge.
This week's ruling concludes nearly four years of wrangling over the autopsy of Aaron Jacobs, a 25-year-old man shot and killed in a confrontation with Sumter police officers on Sept. 28, 2010. Two officers approached Jacobs, who was walking on Patriot Parkway, while searching for a suspect in a carjacking, a meeting that ended in Jacobs' death. A different man was later arrested for the carjacking.
Sumter Item reporter Joe Perry requested a copy of Jacobs' autopsy to determine the circumstances of Jacobs' death. Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock refused, saying the report was a private medical record. Osteen Publishing Co., publisher of The Sumter Item, brought suit to force the release of the information under FOIA, the state law requiring government records and documents be made available to the public.
Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association, argued The Sumter Item's case at a Feb. 5 hearing in front of the court. He thinks the court majority created an overly broad definition of "medical record" in its ruling.
"If this is a medical record, people are dying to get into that practice," Bender said.
Instead, an autopsy in circumstances such as those surrounding Jacobs' death is a tool in a criminal investigation, Bender argues, and needs to be reviewable.
"In a situation like this, where the police are involved in a shooting, a government official will have an autopsy report that is inconsistent with the police report, and it will not be made public," he said. "The version from police will be the only one available."
The court's decision partly revolved around the fact FOIA exempts "medical records" but doesn't spell out what documents are covered under the term, leaving it up to the judges to determine what counts as a medical record and what doesn't. At one point, the justices' ruling even cites the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of the phrase in justifying its interpretation.
"The medical information gained from the autopsy and indicated in the report is not confined to how the decedent died," Hearn writes in her opinion. "Instead, an autopsy, which is performed by a medical doctor, is a thorough and invasive inquiry into the body of the decedent which reveals extensive medical information."
In a statement released after the ruling, Bullock said the court's decision gives much-needed guidance to how officials handle autopsy documents.
"Even though the autopsy reports have always been available to the next of kin through the Sumter County coroner's office, this court decision gives clear direction to all coroners, the media and the families on this sensitive subject," Bullock said. "Throughout this process, my only goal has been to protect the interest of the families and of the people of Sumter County in accordance with South Carolina law."
Justice Costa Pleicones dissented from his fellow justices, arguing that state law regulating coroners and medical examiners sets rules on the handling of autopsy reports.
"(This portion of state law) provides that an autopsy report 'must be furnished upon request to any party to whom the cause of death is a material issue,'" Pleicones wrote in a dissenting opinion. "In my view, this statute demonstrates that autopsy records are not required by law to be closed to the public under FOIA, and also establishes the legal standard for release of autopsy reports to the public."
Bender said the press association will push the state Legislature to tighten definitions in the FOIA legislation when it returns in January, clarifying that the relevant information in an autopsy is not covered by medical privacy exemptions. Such a change would benefit journalists investigating future incidents like that in which Jacobs was killed.
"The Supreme Court blundered in its irrational decision, and the losers in this case are the majority of South Carolinians who oppose secrecy in government and believe firmly in what the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is all about," said Hubert D. Osteen Jr., chairman of Osteen Publishing. "This is not the end of this issue but the beginning of another effort by newspapers and other media, with the support of like-minded citizens, to strengthen FOIA so any alleged loopholes can't be used to thwart the spirit of the law."
Autopsy ruling hinders your right to know
By Braden Bunch
The Sumter Item
The South Carolina Supreme Court erred in its decision regarding FOIA laws and the oversight the laws provide the public over their elected officials. This ruling is a setback for the people of South Carolina who both need and deserve openness and accountability from their government.
The determination by the courts that an autopsy is a medical record, and therefore should be kept private, and not an investigative tool flies in the face of common sense. Never has an autopsy been conducted to improve the health and well being of a patient. These forensic investigations, often conducted in criminal cases, are solely to determine the cause of death of someone when that cause may come into question.
The ability for the government to provide this information, especially when an investigation has been ordered by a public official in a criminal inquiry, should not be selective. This should be a requirement when requested by the citizenry. The public always has a right to know about the activities of the people governing them, especially in situations where the information could expose improper behavior, let alone cause embarrassment for those involved in the situation.
This specific incident before the court involved a case where a law enforcement officer shot an unarmed, misidentified man in his back. It was only after we were able to obtain the autopsy reports in this case through means other than the elected official that should have provided the document in the first place that we were able to learn the official explanation by law enforcement was inaccurate. This latest ruling by the state's highest court now jeopardizes the ability of the public to expose discrepancies between fact and public relations and will only fuel cover-up conspiracies when questionable activities tragically resulting in death occur in the future.
As part of our profession, journalists have made an unwritten pact with the community they serve that we will work vigilantly to protect the public's interest. It is becoming clear that the direction the courts and some elected officials have taken recently concerning the misinterpretation of the laws governing the public's right to know about government activities is a disconcerting one.
In its decision, the Supreme Court ultimately referenced the vagueness of FOIA laws governing our state, saying the power into improve these regulations and provide openness to the people of South Carolina lies in the hands of the Legislature. If anything, Wednesday's decision is definitive proof that Freedom of Information Act laws in South Carolina need to be revisited and reformed by our General Assembly in the earliest time possible. Not doing so would be nothing less than a dereliction of duty.
Braden Bunch is the senior news editor at The Sumter Item. Reach him at (803) 774-1201 or at email@example.com.
South Carolina's State Ethics Commission restricts media policy, asks for review
By Jeremy Borden
The Post and Courier
COLUMBIA - As the S.C. State Ethics Commission formulates a new policy aimed at how it should deal with the media, the commission's chairman on Wednesday temporarily restricted the panel's communications with reporters.
A prominent media attorney called the move unlawful.
Commission Chairman James Burns said that until an official policy is adopted - a proposal is expected to be considered in September - only Executive Director Herb Hayden may speak with the media. The commission, appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley, oversees campaign finances and can levy penalties for a range of ethics matters for the governor and other state and local officials.
Generally, deputy counsel Cathy Hazelwood has answered media questions, and has often been forthright with the media on legal issues regarding the state Ethics Act.
Media attorney Jay Bender said Burns' move to change the policy without a motion, discussion or vote was against the state's open records laws.
"That's a change in policy," Bender said. "Without a motion and a vote, that would be illegal."
He added: "If we had more people in government like Cathy Hazelwood, we'd have a better government."
Bill Rogers, the executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, said other state agencies have used the implementation of a media policy to muzzle staffers and slow the release of information. Other media policies appoint "a central person who spins and controls the process," Rogers said.
Burns and Hayden said in an interview after the meeting that the new policy was not aimed at Hazelwood. Burns said that he wants the new commission members and staff to have a media policy in place to ensure the body is fair to all involved. "We don't want to give the impression that Cathy as the prosecutor is predisposed on any particular action on any particular case," Hayden said. "You don't want the prosecutor making a statement what they're going to do one way or another."
Hazelwood declined to comment.
Burns said nothing specific he had seen in media reports prompted the review. Burns also said that he consulted with Hayden before announcing the temporary change in media policy that all requests for comment be directed to Hayden. Hayden generally sets policy for the organization and helped do so in this case, Burns said.
"That's what Jay Bender is not focusing on," Burns said.
He stressed that the implementation of a media policy does not mean the agency plans to restrict access to the agency. "I'm a very strong advocate for being open, being transparent," Burns said.
Burns has asked Hayden to report on how other state agencies handle media requests, a policy that is expected to be discussed at the commission's September meeting.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.
Judge orders AG's office to release records to Newberry journalist
SCPA Foundation teams with USC to offer coaching program
A circuit court judge recently ordered Attorney General Alan Wilson to release documents related to the estate of musician James Brown.
Journalist Sue Summer, of Newberry, filed suit in 2012 after Wilson refused to release documents related to Brown’s controversial estate, which has been tied up in convoluted court cases since his death.
Judge Eugene C. Griffith, Jr. ruled on July 8, that the Attorney General and his office are public bodies. He said the AG's records are public and must be released to Summer under the FOIA.
"[Wilson's] claim that FOIA requests must be delayed or denied if there is a pending discovery motion in an unrelated case is inconsistent with both the letter and spirit of the FOIA," Judge Griffith wrote in his order.
The judge's order states that Wilson has 15 days to produce all documents related to Summer's FOIA request.
SCPA Attorney Jay Bender said, "This order establishes a citizen’s independent right of access to public records even in those instances where the requested public records might have a connection to a separate civil action between other parties. Another aspect that is important is that the court has ruled that a citizen may bring an FOI suit where the citizen resides and it isn’t necessary to file suit in Richland County against a state agency."
Summer called Judge Griffith's order "a strong affirmation of the FOIA" and said she is looking forward to seeing the documents.
A limited number of coaching spots are available; sign up today to participate
Newspapers have faced significant challenges during the decade with a changing society, increasing costs, declining readership, significant revenue challenges and changing newspaper staff. While S.C. newspapers have weathered the changes well most have not had the time, opportunity or the funds for training their staff to take on the new challenges.
The South Carolina Press Association Foundation has teamed up with The University of South Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications to make it possible for Scott Farrand to partner with many newspapers in South Carolina in the coming months to help tackle some of the challenges. Working with each newspaper individually it will be possible for Scott to customize the training to meet the specific challenges facing each newspaper in their print and online publications.
- Preliminary: Initial contact to identify needs and goals
- Critique: Second contact to evaluate print and online publications
- Development: Creating customized topics and training to meet publication needs
- Training: On-site training at the publication in the form of group, one-on-one sessions or some other combination.
- Confidentiality: All conversations and efforts will be kept confidential to protect the competitive edge of the publication and to ensure success of the program.
Some areas that can be addressed:
Increasing audience, engaging the community, news page design, feature page design, sports page design, web design, photojournalism, story teamwork, illustrating stories, informational graphics, effective typography, multimedia journalism, social media or any other area you might want to include.
Meet our coach:
Scott Farrand worked for Knight-Ridder/The State newspaper for almost 20 years as an award-winning visual journalist. His awards include many SCPA and Society of News design (SND) awards to include “The World’s Best Designed Newspaper.” Currently Scott is a faculty member of the University of South Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication, were he teaches in the Visual Communication sequence and the Journalism sequence.
During the last 10 years Scott has worked in the college’s research facility (Newsplex) where he has had the opportunity to work with almost 50 newspapers and other media companies across the U.S. and around the world. Most recently Scott was invited to work with journalism faculty and professional journalists in Russia (2012) and China (2014). He published his first book “Design & InDesign” in 2012, which has been adopted by many journalism programs in the U.S. to teach the desktop publishing program InDesign. Scott Farrand would now like to take his wealth of experience and knowledge and partner with S.C newspapers to help them communicate more effectively to the next generation of newspaper readers.
Learn more and apply here.
PALMY Ad Contest winners announced
Results from the 2013 PALMY Advertising Contest are now live on SCPA's website. The contest annually honors the best newspaper advertising in South Carolina.
The winners list is for proofing purposes only. Winners are not for release until Aug. 1. The deadline tosubmit corrections is July 18.
An online presentation of all winning ads will be available here on Aug. 1. Email winning PDFs to Jen Madden no later than July 25. This is a great resource for your sales reps and designers so please make sure your winners are included! In addition to showing the winning ads by category, judges' comments will also be included for all first place winners.
Starting Aug. 1, SCPA Executive Director Bill Rogers will come to your newspaper to present your awards at your request. Whether you want to present your awards at a brief ceremony in your newspaper's conference room or you want to take your staff out for a special event (like a luncheon), Bill can join you and present awards to your staff's winners. That way, more of your staff's winners can be honored and there will be little or no cost to you. To set up a presentation, give Bill a call at (803) 750-9561 or email him.
Editorial: The Dark Ages
The News & Reporter, Chester
The most crucial element of open, honest government is daylight that lets us all see in. Unfortunately, the S.C. Supreme Court has now made it awfully easy for elected officials to draw the shades and work outside of public view.
The court recently ruled on the case of Dennis Lambries v. Saluda County Council, which came from Saluda County Council's practice of amending its agenda during regularly scheduled meetings. Lambries claimed this violated the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, a view backed up by a 2012 South Carolina Court of Appeals ruling. That ruling, in part, said that "to allow an amendment of the agenda regarding substantive public matters undercuts the purpose of the notice requirement."
The Appeals Court acknowledged that its interpretation of the law would lead to inconveniences for government bodies, but also said that didn't matter because "the purpose of FOIA is best served by prohibiting public bodies governed by FOIA from amending their agendas during meetings." That viewpoint seemed reasoned and fair. Any business conducted by government bodies has a real effect on people. We actually don't even think there is such a thing as "government business" because a government body is nothing but citizens, doing the collective work of all other citizens in their name and with their money. With very few exceptions, the public has an absolute right to know what any body will discuss in a meeting ahead of time. It keeps nasty surprises from springing up unannounced, that people may want to be on hand to hear about for themselves, comment on or object to. Allowing boards and councils to sort of make things up on the fly, or intentionally keep controversial topics off agendas until a meeting is underway serves no one but the self-serving politician who wants to avoid public scorn and scrutiny. It builds mistrust between the elected and the electorate and reinforces the misguided notion that elected officials, and only elected officials, know what's best in all matters and don't need the meddling press or citizens poking around in "their business" which is really, of course, everyone's business.
The important safeguard of having our state's governing bodies actually tell the people they serve what they are doing has now been disabled, though. Last Wednesday, the S.C. Supreme Court reversed that two-year-old Appeals Court ruling. Not only did the court say amending agendas and adding anything at all for discussion or vote is legal, it ruled that agendas do not have to be provided at all.
"We conclude FOIA's notice statute does not require an agenda to be issued for a regularly scheduled meeting, and FOIA contains no prohibition on the amendment of an agenda for a regularly scheduled meeting," the court said in part.
The State Supreme Court seized on some wording in the state's FOIA law which dictates that agendas "if any, for regularly scheduled meetings must be posted." Somehow, the court decided that two words (if any) undercut the clear intent of the law. Special called meetings, the ruling said, do still require agendas. We aren't sure how any rational person would actually believe the law would differ on the public notification requirements of regular and special called meetings. The FOIA's very existence is centered on the fundamental and vital concept of the people's right to know. In fact, nearly every single aspect of the law is built around and geared toward open government. It affirms what ought to be obvious, which is that elected officials can't construct walls of secrecy and that you are entitled to know what is being done to you, for you or on your behalf. We aren't big fans of judges who read things in laws that aren't there or ignore what is written in laws so as to make them comport with their own particular worldview or opinions. We feel in this case, though, that the court is playing a game of semantics. "If any" may appear somewhere in the pages and pages of the FOIA, but when two words counteract the obvious and stated intent of the entire law and the interpretation of nearly everyone else who has read it (including the Appeals Court), it should have been apparent to the Supreme Court which side of the argument was correct. To rule as they did, frankly, indicates either a total tin ear or willful ignorance.
This matter can be dealt with by our legislature, whom we urge to alter the FOIA by removing "if any" as quickly as possible and closing any other secrecy-enabling loopholes. We also hope all governing bodies will embrace the idea of honesty and openness by continuing to issue agendas 24 hours ahead of meetings and sticking to those agendas, even though they have essentially been given carte blanche to freeze the public out entirely. We hope they will not follow the lead of the Supreme Court and intentionally leave us all totally out in the dark.
Editorial: S.C. Supreme Court ruling shows weakness of open government law
The S.C. Supreme Court decided last week that government bodies don’t have to let you know what they’re planning to do.
The court ruled that bodies like school boards, county councils and city councils can hold regular meetings without ever issuing an agenda, and if they do issue an agenda, they can change it on the fly and depart from it at will.
What that means is that if the members of such a body want to take up an important, controversial issue, such as an unpopular tax increase, they never have to let anyone know that they’re going to discuss it. They can simply bring it up at a regular meeting and deal with it. Pesky citizens, who may have wanted to be heard on the issue, won’t find out about it until it’s too late.
The court ruled this way on a suit from Saluda County. The Saluda County Council had been departing from its posted agenda at meetings, and a citizen filed suit, claiming the state Freedom of Information Act doesn’t allow the body to take up issues that it hadn’t given the public notice it would discuss through the agenda.
The Court of Appeals sided with the citizen and principle of open government, ruling that the council’s actions violated the “spirit” and “purpose” of the Freedom of Information Act.
The Supreme Court decided the spirit and purpose were less important than an awkward phrase. The act requires bodies to post agendas for meetings at least 24 hours before they occur. But the language of the act states:
“Agenda, if any, for regularly scheduled meetings … .” The court took that to mean agendas aren’t necessary, and if they exist, they can be changed.
By doing so, the court opens the door for public bodies to hide their business. Any unpopular topic can go unmentioned by a body until it wishes to tackle it in a regularly scheduled meeting. Citizens, not knowing the body is going to take up the issue, will have no opportunity to speak on the issue or call their council members.
Residents and taxpayers won’t find out that the issue came up at all until action has already been taken. Sure, new ordinances take two readings before they are law, but many issues can be decided by one vote, and this ruling makes it easy to sneak at least one reading by the public.
This abominable ruling points out the fundamental weakness of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. It is too vague and too weak. It has too many loopholes and too little enforcement. Public bodies routinely violate the act, realizing that concerned citizens must take the time and trouble to bring suit in order to force them to obey the law.
Worthwhile bills that would strengthen the act have been proposed in the General Assembly, but they haven’t passed. They have even been opposed by some municipalities and school boards. Residents are justified in asking why these groups would oppose a stronger open government law. What are they trying to hide?
Whatever it is, they are succeeding. They are aided by lawmakers who refuse to reform the law and now by the Supreme Court, which would rather uphold a vague two-word phrase than the spirit and purpose of the law.
High Court rules agendas can be amended at meetings
Open government in South Carolina took a blow Wednesday when the S.C. Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeals ruling that agendas for public meetings can’t be changed during meetings. The court also said agendas aren’t even required for regular meetings.
“We conclude FOIA's notice statute does not require an agenda to be issued for a regularly scheduled meeting, and FOIA contains no prohibition on the amendment of an agenda for a regularly scheduled meeting,” the ruling's conclusion stated.
“The imposition of any additional restrictions in FOIA is a matter for the General Assembly,” the ruling said.
The case, Lambries v. Saluda County Council, came from Saluda County Council's practice of amending its agenda during regularly scheduled meetings. Lambries claimed this violated the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
The Court of Appeals, in a split decision, had ruled that an agenda is required for regularly scheduled meetings and that the Saluda County Council’s amendment of an agenda less than 24 hours before the meeting violated the “spirit and purpose” of the FOIA’s notice requirement.
Jay Bender, SCPA Attorney, called the Supreme Court ruling “an unfortunate decision.”
“This is a setback for open government and will provide those public bodies who are inclined to keep the public out of public business a mechanism to do so,” Bender said.
“Voters should insist that their governmental bodies publish agendas in advance and stick to those agendas.
“I suspect this will make school boards very happy,” he added.
SCPA Executive Director Bill Rogers said he hoped public bodies will opt for publishing agendas and not changing them at the last minute.
“It may no longer be a legal requirement, but it certainly is the right thing to do to let the public know what is being discussed at a meeting.”
Rogers noted that the Lambries ruling by the Court of Appeals has made a difference public bodies amending agendas without public notice.
“Allowing amendments undercuts the whole purpose of having an agenda. How can a citizen show up to speak or hear debate on an issue if they don’t know what's on the agenda?,” Rogers said. "This could lead to terrible abuse of items being put on the agenda at the last minute and the public not knowing about them."
Rogers said SCPA will work to close the notice and agenda loopholes in the FOIA next session.
Read the full opinion here.
Editorial: Former T&D publisher's career fulfills lifelong dream
The Times and Democrat
ISSUE: Death of Dean B. Livingston
OUR VIEW: Longtime T&D publisher started early, spent career as leader and innnovator in his profession
Dean Livingston was a newspaperman, a good one.
That word, “newspaperman,” carries many meanings: Livingston was a mentor, adviser, businessman, negotiator, manager, communicator, mediator, supporter, leader, friend.
To all who knew him, he was a man of principle, fairness and integrity. What he said — or wrote — could be counted on.
His newspaper career was a lifelong dream fulfilled. Look back a few years and you’ll understand.
The year was 1941. The holiday season was limited then to the days just preceding Christmas, not the entire fourth quarter of the year. As customary, the local newspaper published letters to Santa from area children. After all, it was guaranteed readership — cute letters full of typical wishes of local kids. A perfect example, written by an 8-year-old Orangeburg boy and published December 20, 1941:
“Dear Santa Claus — Please bring me a printing press, some fireworks, a book and a football. From-Dean Livingston.”
A PRINTING PRESS? What kind of Christmas wish was that?
Dean B. Livingston, publisher of The Times and Democrat in Orangeburg for 37 years from 1962-1999, really did write Santa for a printing press when he was 8 years old. His letter was published in The Times an Democrat, the newspaper he would later guide through a full third of the 20th century.
He got his wish that Christmas — a toy printing press that he took to the newspaper where he was a carrier boy at the time. Livingston recalls working with the little press with J.L. Sims, Livingston’s mentor during the early days of his newspaper career.
This same wish was fulfilled on a much grander scale when Livingston, at age 29, became the youngest publisher in South Carolina, succeeding Sims after his death in 1962. At his retirement in 1999, Livingston was the longest-serving publisher of any daily newspaper top executive in South Carolina.
Livingston’s accomplishments as publisher of The Times and Democrat were numerous. One of which he was proudest was the fact that the seven-morning-a-week daily newspaper never missed a day of publishing an edition — not during Hurricane Hugo in 1989, nor the winter storm of 1973 that dumped 23 inches of ice and snow on Orangeburg, or even the fire that completely destroyed the physical plant one Sunday afternoon in 1972. There was a “T&D” for readers each and every morning during Livingston’s 37 years as publisher.
Livingston’s innovative outlook to the future characterized his publishing years as he guided the Orangeburg newspaper into new eras of journalism: becoming the first newspaper in South Carolina to convert to offset printing and later to paginate to a full-page typesetter.
Livingston’s influence is felt today in newspapers, board rooms, factories and doctors’ offices across the state and the Southeast. Along the way, Livingston hired hundreds of employees, became their mentor and influenced their careers.
Although The Times and Democrat won hundreds of awards under his leadership for news and advertising through newspaper associations, Dean Livingston always felt the real contest was conducted every day and the judges were the readers of the newspaper. He spent literally a lifetime pursuing his livelihood and his hobby: newspapering in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
Former Times and Democrat publisher Dean Livingston dies at age 81
The Times and Democrat
Dean B. Livingston, who became the state’s youngest newspaper publisher at age 29 and led The Times and Democrat in that position for 37 years until retirement in 1999, died Tuesday in Columbia.
Livingston, who was 81, died at Agape Hospice center from complications from dementia and Parkinson’s disease, according to his son, Dean Livingston Jr.
Livingston served as President of the S.C. Press Association in 1969 and was president of the Frank Mundy Newspaper Foundation, now the S.C. Press Association Foundation, from 1982 until 1984.
“His heart never left Orangeburg and the newspaper,” Livingston Jr. said of his father. “He was so proud about Orangeburg that he wrote a book.”
He loved The Times and Democrat. “That was what the good Lord put him here to do.”
Indeed Livingston started young in his newspaper career, delivering newspapers at age 8 and writing a “Teen Talk” column at age 12. During the summer of his junior year at the University of South Carolina, Livingston became interim sports of The Times and Democrat in his native Orangeburg.
After graduation, Livingston worked at The T&D in the news, advertising and circulation departments before serving in the U.S. Air Force, where he logged more than 2,000 flying hours.
Even in the military, the budding journalism career continued, with Livingston serving as an adviser to the McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., newspaper.
After military service, Livingston returned to The T&D as managing editor. In 1962, Livingston’s mentor and T&D Publisher J.L. Sims died and he was named publisher.
During the years that followed, Livingston became synonymous with the newspaper and journalism in Orangeburg.
He was on the front line of coverage at the scene of the 1968 “Orangeburg Massacre” in which three students were killed near South Carolina State University during a continuing protest over desegregating a Russell Street bowling alley.
He led the newspaper through its most trying times in 1972 when the Broughton Street building complete with major improvements was lost to fire. “We burned down and lost everything” in one of the biggest fires in Orangeburg’s history, Livingston said.
“That fire was on a Sunday and for the next 30 days, we put the entire paper out over in Sumter,” Livingston said during a 1998 interview. Weekend editions were printed in Rock Hill.
Of note, as The T&D was being rebuilt at the site it continues to occupy today, the installation of a new press made news in its own right. The Goss press that remains in use today (with expansions) was installed and the building was then constructed around it.
A year later, The T&D continued to publish during the snowstorm of 1973 that was termed the worst-ever natural disaster to hit locally. Continuing to produce daily editions no matter what was the hallmark of Livingston’s leadership. He took great pride in The Times and Democrat never failing to publish during his three decades as publisher, a record that continues to this day.
After his retirement, Livingston continued to write a column for The Times and Democrat and published the book “Yesteryears” in 2006, described as “a newsman’s look back at the events and people who have influenced the histories of Orangeburg and Calhoun counties.”
Funeral services for Livingston will be held at 2 p.m. Friday, May 23, at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Orangeburg. The family will receive friends afterward in Wannamaker Hall, adjacent to the sanctuary.
Dukes-Harley Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.
SCPA remembers Dean Livingston
Visit the S.C. Journalism Oral History of Newspapers project to watch a video interview we taped with Livingston last year, as he recalls his newspaper's coverage of the Orangeburg Massacre, one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement and to this day a controversial event. In the audio and video interviews, Livingston also shares stories about the Great Snowstorm of 1973, Hugo, a fire at newspaper plant, The Times and Democrat's major technological step in becoming fully paginated, working at the paper, and the changes he has seen the business of journalism. There's also a photo gallery where you can take a look back at Livingston over the years.
SCPA offers house ad seeking photos of fallen S.C. Vietnam veterans
Memorial Day is approaching and SCPA is joining other press associations and newspapers across the nation in “Faces Never Forgotten,” a project that is gathering photos of all Vietnam veterans killed in action. Lest we forget, 896 South Carolinians died in the Vietnam War. The Wall Memorial is missing photos of 578 of these men and women. With your promotional help, families and friends of the veterans can help complete the "Faces Never Forgotten" project by sending photos to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, the sponsor of the project.
Participation is easy. Here is a link. We are asking every newspaper in South Carolina to do the following:
- Publish the promotional ad we've created as space permits – especially around Memorial Day – informing your readers of this important national project to honor local heroes. You will need to insert the names of local soldiers who died (instructions and example below). Your designers can either drop the names into a fillable PDF or open the InDesign package and add the names/resize the depth to fit your paper's width. Also, feel free to add your logo at the bottom.
- Publish the news release near the Memorial Day holiday. You can add your local soldiers names if you'd like.
To get names of your area's fallen soldiers, you have two options:
- Open this spreadsheet and find the veterans from your area that are missing pictures. They are sorted by county and home of record.
- Go to this link. Click Advanced Search, to the right of the search box. Input your city or county and select South Carolina. Scroll to the last box and check: Does Not Have a Default Photo. Then hit submit.
The package of ads, soldier names and news release is available for download on SCPA's website. With your promotion, South Carolina newspapers can help the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation complete this program that they've been working on for years. Together we can make sure our fallen S.C. soldiers are never forgotten.
If you need more details or help on how to customize the ads with your local fallen soldiers, contact Jen Madden and she will assist you.
Thanks for your help with this important project.
Remember D-Day by sharing Ernie Pyle's columns with your readers
By Bill Rogers, Executive Director
D-Day is an appropriate time for us to recall the sacrifices made by those serving and who have served in our Armed Forces. To mark this occasion, the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum in Dana, Indiana, and the Scripps Howard Foundation are offering reprints of three columns written by Ernie Pyle immediately after the Normandy invasion. It’s a reminder to all of the ultimate sacrifice made by so many Americans to maintain the freedoms we enjoy.
The columns, as well as Pyle's mugshot, can be downloaded on the S.C. News Exchange.
If you haven’t read Pyle’s reporting, I encourage you to do so. He told the story of war through the eyes of soldiers, not generals. In my teaching days at USC, I made him assigned reading for reporting students.
The columns really bring home the reality of the invasion and show the power of the written word.
If you want to expose your readers to additional columns by Ernie Pyle,you could include this link to the Indiana University School of Journalism, housed in Ernie Pyle Hall on the Bloomington, Indiana, campus, where your readers can access additional stories written by him.
If you have any suggestions or questions about the Friends of Ernie Pyle or the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum, contact Steve Key at the Hoosier State Press Association.
Also, please consider making a donation to the museum, either personally or through your newspaper. It only seems proper that efforts to preserve the legacy of the most famous World War II correspondent be supported by current journalists.
Last chance to sign up for InDesign training
You don't want to miss our upcoming training session on basic and advanced InDesign to be held Thursday, May 22, at SCPA Offices in Columbia. Adobe expert Michelle Kerscher specializes in teaching print media how to best use Adobe technology to gain better quality results and how to work more efficiently.
The deadline to register is Monday, May 19.
In the morning, Kerscher will cover essential features and tools, as well as techniques to create powerfully designed pages and graphics. In addition to covering document set-up and formatting characters, paragraphs, objects and graphics, she’ll show attendees lesser-known functions that will save you time and increase the quality of your products. In the afternoon, we'll go over our favorite tips and tricks, as well as InDesign’s advanced features including libraries, styles, scripts, effects, paths, master pages, data merge and more. We'll also show you how to create the perfect PDF.
Strong Copyright Law supports journalism and informed communities
By Caroline Little, NAA president & CEO
Every day, city hall reporters at local newspapers distill hours of city council meetings into cogent stories that inform readers about how their elected officials are spending their tax dollars. Sports reporters document the successes of the high school team. Investigative reporters dig through thousands of pages of documents to expose government corruption, waste or ineffectiveness.
This journalism plays a vital role in local communities and in our nation’s democracy. But it also costs money: newspapers continue to invest more than $5 billion a year in journalism, far more than any other medium in the United States. Newspapers deliver news and information when and where readers want it, in print, digital and mobile platforms.
To do that, we must have fair copyright laws to enable newspapers to receive fair compensation in support of this journalism.
This year, the House Judiciary Committee, the Commerce Department, the Copyright Office and others are looking at potential changes to the Copyright Act. The newspaper industry applauds these efforts to ensure that copyright law is best suited for the digital age. We hope that any changes to the Copyright Act will continue to ensure that content creators – including those who invest in journalism – receive fair compensation.
This continued protection is particularly important today because some companies exist solely to aggregate content from the websites of original publishers for the sole purpose of selling this content to business users at a considerable profit.
Newspapers’ concern in this area is not the personal use of newspaper-generated content but rather its use by businesses that benefit financially through the unlicensed monetization of that content. By taking newspaper content without paying for it, these companies undercut the fundamental economic model that supports journalism that is so important to our communities.
As an example of the importance of copyright protection, consider a case last year that was decided by a federal judge in New York. The case involved Meltwater, a for-profit service, which scraped Associated Press articles from the Internet and resold verbatim excerpts to subscribers.
The AP sued the news service for copyright infringement, and the court properly found that Meltwater’s customers viewed the service as a substitute for reading the original articles. The court found that the re-publication of these articles was not “fair use,” a defense that provides a limited exception from the general rule that content users must receive permission from copyright holders to use their content. This case demonstrates that the Copyright Act’s fair use test is flexible enough to allow courts to reach the right decision.
While targeted enforcement actions focusing on business ventures that take and resell our content may continue to be necessary, the newspaper industry is also determined to find business solutions rather than legal remedies. Ultimately, the best approach for fairly compensating newspapers and other publishers is through the licensing of news content for business purposes.
The most convenient way to request permission to copy and distribute material is by contacting the publisher of that content. In addition, clearinghouses exist, like Copyright Clearance Center and Burrelles Luce’s Compliance Article Program, which provide an easy way for business users of content to obtain redistribution rights.
Since our nation’s founding, newspapers have played a central role in sustaining a well-informed public and healthy democracy. We are confident that licensing arrangements and fair and strong copyright protection will ensure our ability to continue to play this role for centuries to come.
SCPA members invited to Catholic Media Conference June 18 in Charlotte
Registration is now open for the annual Catholic Media Conference, the premier educational and networking event featuring the best of the best in Catholic media. This year's conference, set for June 18-20 at the Sheraton Charlotte Hotel, is being hosted by the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C., and its news outlet, the Catholic News Herald.
SCPA members, whether Catholic or not, are invited to learn from the industry's top professionals about what's new and trending in social media, print and digital journalism, and advertising. Experts will be on hand to give you the tools and techniques needed to effectively communicate with your audiences.
Workshops will be led by Adobe PDF software pioneer Kevin Slimp; award-winning newspaper designer Ed Henninger of Rock Hill; Carolinas-based Catholic fiction writer Michelle Buckman; Father Matt Malone, S.J., the editor of America magazine; Dr. Hosffman Ospino of Boston College, a leading researcher of U.S. Latino Catholics; Jim Stipe, award-winning photographer of the developing world; Eric Sundrup, editor of The Jesuit Post; Olympic cross country champion Rebecca Dussault; and respected TV producer Dr. Frank Frost.
View registration options, which includes the full agenda of activities, workshops and speakers. One-day passes and student rates are available. Early-bird rates end May 30.
Jury rules for Myrtle Beach lobbyist in suit against The Sun News
By Tonya Root
The Sun News
CONWAY — An Horry County jury ruled in favor of Myrtle Beach area lobbyist Mark Kelley against The Sun News and investigative reporter David Wren on claims Kelley was defamed in articles written in 2010 about campaign contributions made a year earlier.
The jury awarded $400,000 in actual damages and $250,000 in punitive damages against the newspaper and Wren. The jury deliberated for more than four hours before reaching unanimous verdicts on the two types of damages.
Kelley filed the suit in May 2012 against Wren and The Sun Publishing Co., seeking actual damages to compensate for “his loss of and/or damage to his good name, his personal and business reputation,” according to the suit.
He declined to comment about the verdict after the trial.
“We are, of course, disappointed with the jury’s verdict and continue to stand by the reporting of David Wren and the journalistic ethics of The Sun News,” said Carolyn Callison Murray, editor and vice president of the newspaper. Attorneys will make post-trial arguments before the judge on Monday and the news organization will decide after that whether to appeal the ruling, she said.
The trial began the morning of May 5 with opening statements and testimony, which often hinged on issues of grammar, and continued through the evening of May 7.
The judge ruled before testimony began that Kelley is a public figure, which meant the jury had to determine that actual malice was involved on the part of the reporter and newspaper. Read more.
Clinton murder trial hearing: defense asks judge to silence both families, victims' friends
By Vic MacDonald
The Clinton Chronicle
A murder defendant's attorney asked Circuit Judge Eugene Griffith today to issue an order preventing the family of the late EA Asbill, of Clinton, her friends and law enforcement agents from talking about the pending murder trial of Michael Beatty, arrested in July in connection with Asbill's death by strangulation.
Defense attorney Charles Gross said he would not object to Griffith issuing an order saying neither Asbill's family nor Beatty's family can talk about the homicide. He specifically cited postings on Facebook, and said an anti-Criminal Domestic Violence event in Greenwood - where Asbill's mother, Emily Joy, spoke to a crowd of about 1,000 people - damaged Beatty's chance of getting a fair trial.
"We want to have this trial in Laurens County," Gross said during a hearing in Laurens. "The jury panel is being tainted." Griffith did not rule in the defense motion to expand an already-in-place protective order agreed to by the defense and the 8th Circuit Solicitors Office. Attorneys for newspapers in Clinton and Laurens have filed a companion motion, claiming the protective order is overly broad.
"I would argue the cure for an overly broad protection order is not to make it a gag order," media attorney Jay Bender told Griffith. "The law does not say a jury has to be ignorant (of a case), it says the jurors must be unbiased."
"Social media is one of the biggest obstacles today (in ensuring fair trials)," Griffith said. "I caution everybody, that's not a good way to resolve things. (Social media response to a crime) sometimes is bigger than the case itself."
Eighth Circuit Solicitor David Stumbo said, in his view, Joy did not say anything at the rally in Greenwood - titled "No More Lies & Bruises" - about the facts of the murder case. He said to his recollection Joy did not use Beatty's name; Joy is considering organizing an anti-Criminal Domestic Violence rally in Laurens County, according to EA Asbill's memorial page on Facebook.
Gross said just the implication that Asbill was the victim of Criminal Domestic Violence implies that Beatty is guilty of murder. With that presumption Gross said his client's ability to get a fair trial in Laurens County is compromised.
Griffith was not sure. He said if it was a felony DUI case, people having a rally about drinking and driving would not imply any particular person was guilty of the crime.
No witnesses were called during the hearing, the third before Judge Griffith since Beatty was charged with murder and a co-defendant, William Alexander, was charged with accessory after the fact of murder in connection with Asbill's death by strangulation.
Alexander was released on bond. Griffith allowed six months to pass without ruling on a bond motion for Beatty. Since that the case, on behalf of Beatty, Gross said the defense is entitled to ask again for a bond ruling, this time with evidence.
Gross proposed playing for the court an audio tape of Alexander's statement to authorities shortly after Asbill died. Stumbo objected, saying the audio tape brings up facts to be present at trial, not in a hearing. The solicitor said he was not ready at Wednesday's hearing to have rebuttal witnesses on standby to testify, if needed for the bond request.
The hearing was adjourned, to be reconvened May 2 at the Hillcrest Judicial/Services Center in Laurens.
Griffith has not ruled yet on a motion brought forth by Bender to set aside the protective order that bars prosecution and defense attorneys, law enforcement officers connected with the investigation and forensics analysts from making statements about the pending murder case.
Citing the protective order, the Laurens County Coroner's Office refused a media request under the state's open records law to release Asbill's autopsy. A motion was made to the court in January to have the protective order set aside, because the order over-reaches the court's authority to block the release of documents; there was no indication if Griffith will rule on this motion.
Speaking directly to the defense motion to stop families and friends - particularly people with "specialized knowledge of the facts of the case" - from talking and posting about it, Stumbo said, "I can't control what's on Facebook. I have instructed the victim's mother and father not to talk about the facts of this case. We have done everything we can to stay within the confines of the protective order (in the solicitor's office and law enforcement).
"It's much ado about nothing."
Gross disagreed during the formal hearing and, vehemently, during a 20-minute all-attorneys conference at the bench. Of Asbill's mother, Emily Joy, Gross said, "She attended the (Greenwood) rally and talked about her daughter's case. It is being written up as her making statements, and not presenting the other side. Her daughter was a perpetrator of violence against Mr. Beatty."
Stumbo countered that "the Facebook postings have gone both ways."
Union County school board's secrecy leaves public, media guessing
By Graham Williams
Union County News
Prior to every meeting of the Union County Board of School Trustees, board secretary Kim Petty sends me a copy of the agenda.
The agenda lists each activity, from the superintendent’s report to the finance report, along with whether or not the board is expected to take action on a particular item and the administration’s recommended course of action.
The agenda also notes if additional information about a particular item is in the board members’ packets. For example, four agenda items at tonight’s meeting have the word “enclosures,” “enclosure” or “enclosed” beside them in parentheses.
What do you suppose is contained in these “enclosures”? That’s for board members to know and the rest of us to guess.
When Union City Council and Union County Council meet, I get emails with PDFs of everything on the agenda, including minutes of previous meetings, pages of proposed ordinances and applications for various boards.
Nothing is withheld.
Because of this transparency, city council and county council meetings are very open and relaxed. Reporters covering the meetings know ahead of time what is going to be discussed, as well as the background for each agenda item.
Contrast that with school board meetings, where reporters are kept in the dark about everything. We listen in silence, taking notes about things we know little or nothing about. We can ask questions after the meeting, when board members are heading out the door, or call the district office the next day.
That wouldn’t be necessary if we were given same information as board members.
The lack of transparency on the part of the school district leads outsiders to question the need for secrecy. What are they trying to hide?
Tonight’s agenda includes a report by Superintendent Dr. Kristi Woodall giving an update on accreditation. The agenda lists “enclosures” beside it. Is there something we shouldn’t know about accreditation? Why not share this information with reporters?
The personnel report includes revised procedures following bus accidents with “enclosure” beside it. Shouldn’t the public be made aware of any changes to these procedures? After all, their children are the ones riding in the buses.
The instruction report includes one overnight field trip request, followed by “enclosure.” Why is a field trip request top secret? Are students visiting the CIA headquarters?
The monthly budget report is also enclosed in the board’s packet. The school district is responsible for millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money – it should be public information.
The last item on the agenda is “executive session” for one personnel matter. Although allowed by law, this item is on every agenda, which leads people to wonder what the board is talking about behind closed doors.
School board members are elected to serve the best interests of the students as well as the taxpayers. Doing business under a cloud of suspicion serves neither purpose.
Editorial: Don't expunge FOI access
The Post and Courier
Even as the Legislature was purportedly closing in on a new ethics bill that would give the public more information about their state lawmakers, the House of Representatives passed an unrelated bill that would keep the public in the dark.
One step forward, another step back?
Fortunately, though, late last week a Senate subcommittee wisely put the brakes on that ill-advised legislation's progress toward passage.
The House proposal was supposed to protect the rights of the innocent while also keeping vital information about criminal cases from being expunged.
Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said law enforcement agencies statewide have been destroying too many reports and files about their investigations after judges have ordered them expunged.
But House Bill 4560, which was approved by a 106-0 vote in that chamber, would produce serious problems of its own.
Yes, it would narrow the scope of what is redacted in police reports - but it also would seal the remaining information from the public.
Mr. Smith, a criminal defense lawyer, said he got help from the S.C. Sheriffs' Association in drafting the wording of his bill, but he was unaware of an attorney general's opinion that said incident reports and other documentation of an investigation should be saved.
As a matter of course, legislators ought to seek the input of experts in the area being addressed.
Someone with a thorough knowledge about freedom of information laws in South Carolina should have been consulted before the March House vote to ensure that the wording of the bill didn't diminish the public's right to know.
Rep. Smith said he is "all for keeping public records public. So maybe this is a good opportunity to take another look at this."
But it would also be wise for lawmakers to assure needed transparency on what public bodies are doing - and to work harder to protect freedom of information in all of their deliberations.
As reported in Saturday's Post and Courier, that Senate subcommittee refused to go along with the House version. Instead, it formed a study group to give the matter further review.
Now lawmakers in both the Senate and House can re-focus on a more productive - and open - way to balance the bill's stated goals.
As Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, told our reporter: "What we're headed for is a collision of someone's personal right to be fully exonerated versus any public interest in maintaining a record of an alleged crime. I'm sure there's a way to sort that out."
And we're sure the General Assembly can do better than that fatally flawed House bill. Read more.
Myrtle Beach papers join efforts for access to search warrants
Two Grand Stand newspapers and the S.C. Press Association have joined in legal efforts to get public access to returned search warrants in the high-profile Heather Elvis murder case in Myrtle Beach.
“This is an important opportunity to assert the rights the public and press have for access to judicial records," said SCPA Attorney Jay Bender, who filed an appeal on behalf of Waccamaw Publishers, Inc., which had requested the documents from the magistrate and was turned down. Waccamaw publishes The Horry Independent, Carolina Forest Chronicle, Myrtle Beach Herald and The Loris Scene. "Both the S.C. constitution and the U.S. constitution guarantee a right of access to court records. And the exemption from disclosure claimed by the magistrate might be appropriate if the request been made for a record in the hands of a law enforcement agency, not a court.
"A favorable ruling should be protection statewide against magistrates attempting to withhold judicial records from the public.”
The Sun News did not have legal standing to join the appeal because they did not request the documents directly from the magistrate. They are filling a request to be a friend of the court in the matter.
Here's more on this issue from Michael Smith, editor of the Carolina Forest Chronicle:
Waccamaw Publishers is appealing an Horry County magistrate’s decision to deny the newspaper publishing group’s request for access to search warrant documents filed in the Elvis case.
The appeal, filed 8:13 a.m. April 3 at the Horry County Courthouse in Conway, seeks access to “executed and returned” search warrants signed by Aaron Butler, associate chief magistrate for Horry County, as it relates to the Elvis case.
Horry County police executed the warrants in the early morning hours of Feb. 21 at a pair of addresses in the 8700 block of Highway 814 in the Myrtle Beach area.
As a result of the search, Sidney Moorer, 38, and his wife, Tammy Caison Moorer, 42, were taken into custody and later charged with murder, kidnapping, obstruction of justice and two counts of indecent exposure in connection with the Elvis case.
Police have not specifically said what was found at the residences after executing the search warrant.
In the appeal, Waccamaw Publishers attorney Jay Bender said South Carolina court rules of procedure classify search warrants as judicial records that can’t be routinely withheld.
The S.C. Rules of Civil Procedure “provides a procedure for the determination of the appropriateness of sealing court records, but this procedure has not been followed in connection with the respondent’s denial of access,” the appeal states. Read more.
Editorial: Air College of Charleston fund-raising secrets
The Post and Courier
Every year, South Carolina taxpayers pay handsomely to support the College of Charleston's fund-raising efforts. George Watt is paid $199,000 as executive director of the College of Charleston Foundation and executive vice president for institutional advancement for the College. He is supplied an office and meeting space.
But the taxpayers can't find out about how he's doing at their expense. When asked this week about individual donations to the foundation, he balked. He said he would not release information about how much individual donors contribute.
"We've never released donor information," Mr. Watt told Post and Courier reporter Diane Knich. "I'll fight you on that."
As a public employee, Mr. Watt should be particularly sensitive to the public's right to know. And as head of the Foundation, he should recognize that it is subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Indeed, you'd think anyone connected with college foundations across the state would know all about their responsibilities for public disclosure. In a landmark case in 1991, Weston v. Carolina Research and Development Foundation, the S.C. Supreme Court established that university foundations are public bodies and subject to open records laws.
South Carolina Press Association lawyer Jay Bender considers it one of the most important decisions regarding freedom of information in the state. Since the opinion, he said he has not been aware of state foundations trying to avoid public scrutiny.
According to Mr. Bender, Mr. Watt is required to make public the names of donors and the amounts they gave unless the donor specified that it must remain anonymous as a condition of giving it. Read more.
Coast CEO to hire private investigator to figure out how newspaper obtained his contract proposal
Myrtle Beach Herald
By Charles D. Perry
Coast RTA General Manager Myers Rollins plans to hire a private investigator to find out who gave the Herald a copy of his written request for a raise.
Two weeks ago, the newspaper reported that Rollins was seeking a new five-year contract and a salary increase of nearly 11 percent, despite the fact that the bus service was in danger of losing state and local funding.
The story cited several documents, including Rollins’ proposed contract.
After the story appeared, a Coast official called one of the reporters who wrote it and asked him how the Herald had obtained the documents.
The reporter declined to reveal that information.
That led to Rollins emailing Coast board members last week and decrying the leak as a “despicable act.”
The CEO noted that Coast’s staff attorney would be hiring a firm to investigate the situation and find out who released the document. Read more.
Editorial: Heather Elvis search warrants should be made public
From Carolina Forest Chronicle
Because emotions are running high in the Heather Elvis case, we knew not everyone would agree with our decision to appeal a magistrate’s determination to keep the search warrants secret. Rest assured we did not take this action lightly. We weren’t trying to be sensational, nor were we trying to “sell newspapers” or “increase website traffic” as some assert (the Carolina Forest Chronicle is still free in the 29579 ZIP code, by the way).
Our decision also has nothing to do with Sidney and Tammy Moorer, who have been charged with murder in Elvis’ disappearance. It has to do with the rule of law.
We do not live in a third world autocracy, where secret police and secret courts – assuming there’s any court at all – are commonplace. We live in a democracy governed by separation of powers that includes the executive, legislative and judicial branches. And in the American judicial system, court records are not only public, they’re sacred.
The notion that court records are public isn’t something that’s been made up. Court records have stood as written examples of fundamental freedoms that for centuries have been spelled out in the U.S. and S.C. Constitutions.
When government operates in secret, people lose confidence in the fairness of the system. When the doors open and people can see what’s happening, there’s confidence the system is working fairly.
In a free democracy such as ours, somebody has to police the police to ensure that we, in fact, are functioning as a democracy, a task that typically falls to a free and independent press. Part of living in a democracy also includes an open court system. Court records are considered open unless there is a hearing to seal them. That was not done in the Heather Elvis case.
Police sought warrants to search addresses off Highway 814. The Moorers were charged a short time later. They remain jailed after bond was denied March 17. We realize many people already think the Moorers are guilty. But a gut feeling is not enough to justify keeping judicial records secret, particularly since the Moorers were supposedly charged based on what police found while executing the search warrant.
We also realize some fear making the warrants public will somehow taint the case. To this claim, our response is that courts have repeatedly found that thorough questioning of jurors will ensure a fair trial.
Search warrants are no different than arrest warrants or civil lawsuits, which are also considered open court records under state and federal law. We cannot, in a free democracy, ignore laws we find inconvenient. The law doesn’t allow us to cherry-pick which ones to follow or ignore. We cannot take shortcuts merely to obtain convictions.
In a free democracy, it’s essential for citizens to see the work police and prosecutors are doing to ensure public trust in both law enforcement and the court system. Without transparency, how can we trust police are acting properly? How can we be sure criminal charges weren’t filed to satisfy passions of the public?
There has been an almost mob mentality associated with the Elvis case. Numerous harassment complaints have been filed and two citizens following the case were even been charged with obstructing justice.
Darlington publisher to lead state press association
COLUMBIA – Morrey Thomas, publisher of the News and Press in Darlington, was elected president of the S.C. Press Association at the group’s Annual Meeting Saturday at the Hilton Columbia Center.
Other officers elected were: Judi Mundy Burns, publisher of the Index-Journal in Greenwood, as daily newspaper vice president; and Ellen Priest, president and publisher of The Star in North Augusta and the Aiken Standard as weekly newspaper vice president; and Mike Smith, executive editor of the Herald-Journal in Spartanburg, as treasurer.
Elected to two-year terms on the SCPA Executive Committee were: P.J. Browning, president and publisher of The Post and Courier in Charleston; Braden Bunch, senior news editor of The Sumter Item; and John Huff, Jr., editor in chief of the Independent Mail in Anderson.
Re-elected for continuing terms on the SCPA executive committee were: Barbara Ball, publisher of The Voice of Blythewood and Fairfield County; Dan Cook, editor of the Free Times in Columbia; and Jane Pigg, publisher of The Link in Cheraw.
“It is an honor and privilege to be able to contribute as president of our press association,” Thomas said. “Thanks to our staff and members, the SCPA is widely regarded as one of the strongest press associations in the country. It will take our continued dedication and commitment to keep us as a leader in our industry.”
Thomas served as an officer in the U.S. Navy on nuclear submarines for 10 years. Following military service, he worked at The Sun News in Myrtle Beach and The Brunswick Beacon in Shallotte, N.C. While in North Carolina, he was active on the board of the North Carolina Press Association. Thomas returned to his hometown of Darlington in 2007 to assume the duties of publisher at the News and Press.
Thomas succeeds Jack Osteen, publisher of The Sumter Item.
The election came as part of a two-day meeting attended by nearly 400 newspaper journalists from across the state.
The press association is 162 years old and includes the state’s 16 daily newspapers and 93 of its weekly newspapers.
Hearing scheduled Friday in Speaker Harrell-Atty Gen Wilson case
The Post and Courier
By Schuyler Kropf
A hearing has been scheduled tomorrow in Columbia that's expected to address the on-going feud between House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Attorney General Alan Wilson.
The State Grand Jury Office in Columbia issued an announcement this afternoon confirming there will be an open hearing at 10:30 a.m. at the Richland County Courthouse in front of Judge Robert E. Hood.
The move came as the Post and Courier, along with other members of the S.C. Press Association, filed a legal motion this morning seeking to ensure that any hearing on Harrell's request to have Wilson removed as prosecutor in his grand jury investigation be held in public.
It was not immediately clear if the hearing would address only the media access request, or include a full review of the issues surrounding Harrell and Wilson.
A spokesman for Wilson declined comment today, as did a spokesman for the grand jury office.
In court papers today, a press association lawyer said full and public access to the airing of the two's positions is an open court necessity.
"Harrell's prominence in the affairs of the State of South Carolina demands that any judicial proceeding concerning him be open for scrutiny by public and press so that the public may have confidence that 'justice was done,' " the challenge says.
The filing was done by attorney Jay Bender, attorney for the press group.
Bender says the dispute between Harrell's legal team and Wilson's office over its conduct is separate from the actual grand jury investigation that Wilson is leading and focusing on Harrell, R-Charleston.
Bender said the press filing is to ensure there is an open review, given Harrell's position as House speaker.
Harrell's lawyers reportedly want Wilson replaced and earlier pursued a hearing with Hood, who will be on the bench Friday.
The probe into Harrell's conduct dates back almost a year after the Post and Courier and a government watchdog group began examining Harrell's campaign money accounts.
SC press group’s lawyer to seek access to secret House Speaker hearing
By John Monk
COLUMBIA, SC — The S.C. Press Association has authorized a leading openness in government lawyer to seek access to a hearing before a judge who secretly has been asked to kick state Attorney General Alan Wilson off an ongoing state grand jury criminal investigation involving House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
“We have no history of secret court hearings in this state, and there should not be one,” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association.
Lawyer Jay Bender is seeking to attend a hearing at which lawyers for Harrell are expected to argue that Wilson, the state’s top elected prosecutor, be removed from the Harrell investigation, Rogers said. Bender will argue that the public and press be allowed to attend that hearing.
“This is a very important case – it should not be decided in secret,” Rogers said. “Courts need to be in sunshine to assure fairness.
“And if the judge does decide to close the hearing, that has to be done in an open hearing. We want a chance to argue for openness.”
Bender, who is the press association’s lawyer, is representing “all the newspapers in South Carolina,” Rogers said.
The judge in the case is state circuit court Judge Robert Hood, who has been on the bench two years.
Bender has emailed Hood asking for a chance to appear at any hearing in which Harrell’s lawyers seek to disqualify Wilson, but has not heard back from the judge, Rogers said.
Early last week, The State newspaper reported that Harrell’s lawyers, Bart Daniel and Gedney Howe, were seeking a secret hearing with Hood in which they hoped to get Wilson disqualified. Harrell is being investigated by the State Grand Jury for the alleged misuse of campaign funds.
After a public outcry, the hearing was not held.
Such a hearing would be a historic event – never before in state history has a lone state judge held a secret hearing and then removed the Attorney General from a high profile case without the public knowing about it, or learning what the reasons for the disqualification were.
Wilson did not initiate the State Grand Jury investigation into Harrell’s alleged misuse of campaign funds on his own. By state law, Mark Keel, chief of the State Law Enforcement Division, also had to sign off on the investigation. SLED is the state’s investigative arm.
The matter began in 2012, when citizen activists brought information to Wilson that indicated Harrell might have reimbursed himself about $300,000 from his campaign account to fly his private plane on state business. The House Ethics Committee declined to take up their complaint.
In 2013, Wilson asked SLED to investigate the matter.
In January, after months of investigation and a final SLED report, Wilson announced he would seek to empanel a State Grand Jury and present members with the SLED report. The State Grand Jury has broad investigative powers, including that of subpoena, and can probe into Harrell ’s affairs beyond the SLED investigation.
Since The State revealed plans for a secret hearing, five statewide citizens groups have issued statements decrying judicial secrecy in South Carolina and urging Hood to hold an open hearing.
Bender, a University of South Carolina professor in its Law School and School of Journalism, has for years played a role in working for open courtrooms and expanding the public’s access to government records. He is also the attorney for The State.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.
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