ABBEVILLE, S.C. — Ask many city or county officials in South Carolina about open meetings and open records, and you're likely to be met with fear or suspicion; and in some places, public officials are seemingly ignorant of the requirements of the law.
In Abbeville County, a lawyer warned county council members about replying to a statewide survey of public officials' handling of closed-door sessions.
In Richland County, a school board member said a lawyer advised him not to answer the same questions.
At the St. Matthews Police Department, a person asking for a crime incident report was told he couldn't have a copy because suspects and victims have rights.
The reactions came as the Associated Press, South Carolina Press Association and newspapers around the state approached public bodies with a 13-question survey about executive sessions and sought police reports that law enforcement agencies must make available to the public.
In Abbeville, one county council member took the survey, but a clerk later called a Greenwood Index-Journal reporter handling the information and told her to discard it. A couple of weeks later, a second reporter spoke with the county's lawyer, Lee Roper, and provided him a copy of the survey and explained the project's goals.
Later that night, just before the panel went behind closed doors for an executive session, Roper openly discussed the questionnaire.
"I would like council to be aware that they're certainly not obligated ... to participate in the survey and answer these questions," Roper said. "And I would also like council, if they do answer these questions as part of the survey, to pay particular attention to the questions and make sure they read these questions very carefully and are sure of their interpretation of the questions because it may be that some of the questions are worded where there would be more of an interpretation as to how they should be answered."
Afterward, all the council members declined to respond to the questions, which included: Have you ever been asked to vote informally in executive session? Would you object to signing an affidavit after an executive session affirming that only the specified subject was discussed? Do believe your council has ever violated the Freedom of Information Act regarding executive sessions?
"These are straightforward questions," said Larry Walker, a former Abbeville County Council chairman who attending the meeting.
In Richland District 1, school board member Jasper Salmond asked board lawyer Susan Williams about answering the same questions.
"I've been advised not to fill it out," he said.
"They are not required to respond to that survey," Williams told The (Columbia) State newspaper.
Ultimately, two of the school board members filled out the survey.
Police and sheriff's departments around the state turned out to be the biggest source for denial. A dozen law enforcement agencies, nearly a third of those visited, refused to provide copies of incident reports that residents should be able to review without delay.
In many of those instances, clerks did not know the law and weren't sure what the public is entitled to see.
At the Bamberg Police Department and the Greenwood County Sheriff's Department, for instance, a reporter was told that only victims can get copies of crime reports. At the Orangeburg County Sheriff's Department, a visitor was told that he would have to be a victim and show identification.
Saying "no" to those requests isn't the right answer, state Attorney General Henry McMaster says.
"The law is very clear. It must be provided," he said.
Citizens' field guide to open meetings
Know the law: Executive sessions can be called and exclude the public, but saying that an executive session is for a "personnel" or "legal" issue isn't enough. Public bodies need to offer more detail, such as "hiring an interim finance director." The panel has to vote in public to meet privately. They may discuss only the issue they voted on to enter executive session. Any other discussions or votes have to wait until they return to public session. They can't take any votes behind closed doors.
Before a meeting: If a public body lists "personnel" or "legal matters" as a reason for a closed-door session on an agenda, talk with the chairman. Ask that the public body be more specific about the reasons before they vote.
During the meeting: If a public body doesn't give specific reasons for executive session, after voting, stand and address the chairman. Politely say: "The South Carolina Freedom of Information Act requires a specific purpose of the session to be stated. Please be more specific."
After the meeting: If you think a public body abuses the executive session privilege, legal action can be taken in some cases to undo their decisions and the panel can be fined. Ultimately, abuses could become a factor when officials stand for re-election or reappointment.
Citizens' field guide to law enforcement records
Know the law: The state's Freedom of Information Act requires law enforcement agencies to make certain types of documents available for inspection during regular business hours. That includes crime incident reports that disclose "nature, substance and location of any crime or alleged crime." Police can redact pieces of information that threaten the safety of the victim or interfere with an ongoing investigation.
When you're there: You're not required to identify yourself. They agency is required to provide access to incident reports for the previous 14 days. If you need a copy, state law says those "must be furnished at the lowest possible cost." If the price is more than you would expect to pay at a copy shop, ask for a detailed explanation of the costs.
After you leave: If you think you're being denied access or being charged too much for documents, you can take legal action.