Transparency in government is always vital, but it’s particularly important in times of crisis.
Citizens must understand how and why their leaders are making decisions that could impact their personal health, families and livelihoods.
Not only do they deserve access to government meetings, state law requires it.
That’s why we’re frustrated with the recent actions of some local officials. On multiple occasions, Horry County Council and North Myrtle Beach City Council have convened secret emergency meetings to approve policies in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
By “secret” we mean the government did not notify the public about the meetings and did not allow the media to listen to council discussions. The only reason we know anything about the outcome of these clandestine conversations is because we received notices from government spokespeople outlining what had been decided.
How the councils reached those decisions — and the options they discussed but didn’t choose — remains a mystery.
That’s not how this process should work. Under state law, governments are required to provide 24 hours’ notice for most meetings. There is an exception to this mandate for emergency meetings, but that doesn’t mean the council can shut the public out. State law requires that some notice be provided and specifically that local news organizations be notified.
Simply put, public meetings must be held in public.
Over the last week, some officials have argued that these emergency meetings don’t require any notice. These politicians insist they are complying with the law.
They are wrong.
Fortunately, not every public body in the area feels comfortable operating without sunlight.
When Conway City Council declared a state of emergency on March 14, the city notified the media more than four hours in advance and provided a way for reporters to listen to the conference call discussion about the city’s coronavirus response. Last week, the Myrtle Beach City Council provided nearly three hours’ notice for its emergency meeting about virus-related policies and broadcast the audio of the conference call.
We understand these are unprecedented and frightening times. Apart from the constant reports of new cases and deaths, the Grand Strand economy continues to be battered by a force that’s unrelenting. It’s like a hurricane that won’t end. Before the bottom fell out of the local economy in March, Horry County saw 112 unemployment claims filed in a week. The following week that number soared to more than 5,200 — the most claims of any county in South Carolina.
As we’ve been repeatedly told by public officials in recent weeks, these times require sacrifice. However, government transparency cannot be thrown onto the altar.
Secrecy breeds mistrust. If public officials want citizens to have any faith in what they say, they must earn that trust by operating openly.
As a community and as a country, we will face many challenges in the coming weeks and months. Questions about sustaining social distancing policies, when to open up the economy and how to flatten the curve are complicated; the answers will be too.
But in the case of government secrecy, the disease has a simple cure.
For questions about Waccamaw Publishers' editorials, contact editor Charles Perry at firstname.lastname@example.org.