Kudos to Taylor Newell, the City of Conway’s public information officer.
Tuesday, city employees gathered at City Hall to hear the state’s foremost authority on the Freedom of Information Act explain the requirements of the open government law.
Jay Bender, who served as the S.C. Press Association’s primary attorney for many years, traveled from Columbia at Newell’s request to talk about the FOIA and answer questions from city employees.
City Hall was nearly filled to capacity and engagement between Bender and those in attendance showed a high level of interest in the intricacies of the FOIA.
Unfortunately, one group was conspicuously absent from the discussion: members of Conway City Council. It’s too bad they didn’t attend because I think they have at times skirted the FOIA.
The law requires governing bodies to specify the reason for going behind closed doors in so-called “executive sessions.”
Hopefully council will be more careful about going behind closed doors when informed of Bender’s comments.
While the provisions and intent of the FOIA seem clear to those of us in the journalism profession, I can understand why the law can be confusing to those in government.
That’s the reason I am so complimentary of Newell for inviting her former professor to explain some of the complexities of the law to her fellow staff members.
During his time in Conway, Bender was able to field questions and provide an explanation of how the FOIA pertains to specific circumstances.
For example, police departments violate the FOIA consistently and Bender had strong words of advice for Conway law enforcement.
I’m happy to report that the Conway Police Department is one of the better agencies in Horry County about providing police reports to our newspapers when we request them.
The reports provided by the Conway police department are not heavily redacted like the ones we receive from the Horry County Police Department.
The public has a right to know information contained in police reports. The information is useful in making decisions about the safety of the communities in which they live.
When police redact information, they are not serving the public they were sworn to protect.
Although Bender has retired, he still handles litigation for newspapers and he remains a strong advocate of the FOIA. His visit to Conway provided local government with a much better idea of what the state’s sunshine law requires.
I think sometimes elected officials don’t follow the letter of the FOIA because they do not fully understand it.
I would suggest other municipalities in Horry County, and Horry County Council, follow Newell’s example and ask for an expert to explain the nuances of the FOIA.
One thing Conway City Council and other governing bodies can do to keep the public’s business public is resist the urge to plan out-of-town budget retreats. A local retreat is always a better choice.
We are delighted the City of Conway administration educated itself about the FOIA. Now, please adhere to it.