There was an unmistakable theme running through different items in The State this morning — a tale of government transparency on retreat.
South Carolina has never been on what you’d call the cutting edge of openness in government. After having worked for years under Tennessee’s wide-open Sunshine Law, I was deeply shocked when I got here and learned how easily public bodies could meet behind closed doors.
Based on three items in the paper today, the cause of transparency seems to be retreating on multiple fronts:
- Ethics chief limits who can talk to media – Under some circumstances, I can have some sympathy for public officials trying to make sure a spokesman actually speaks for the institution, rather than confusing the public. But it’s particularly disturbing to see that it’s Nikki Haley’s appointee as chairman who’s trying to narrow and control the information pipeline — given our governor’s own history on the ethics front.
- SC high court: Autopsy reports not public records — Says press mouthpiece Jay Bender: “With this decision, I fear that the only version of events that will reach the public will be the one that exonerates government personnel from any claims of misconduct.” I also like what an editor at the Sumter paper said in response to the courts concern that releasing an autopsy could reveal sensitive health information: “There has never been an autopsy that has ever been performed that improved someone’s health.”
- Cindi Scoppe’s column on “Sealed records, closed doors” — Cindi writes about a series of weird instances of judges in the Lowcountry not only sealing documents that should be public, but closing the courtrooms’ doors. This is based on a report from Fitz McAden, executive editor of The Beaufort Gazette and Hilton Head’s Island Packet, so maybe it’s limited to courts in that part of the state. But Cindi worries that it isn’t.
And as Cindi notes in that column, we have yet to see what mischief may be caused by the Supreme Court’s footnote about certain aspects bearing on the Bobby Harrell ethics case also being heard in camera. Cindi promises, with a warning tone, to keep an eye on that:
If the high court indeed was sending a signal to close the courtroom, that would constitute a dramatic departure from its longstanding policy, and if that turns out to be the case, we will have ample opportunity to discuss that. At length.
The trendline at the moment doesn’t look good…