Last fall, gubernatorial candidate Mark Sanford spoke about the need for open government in South Carolina, calling “sunshine the ultimate disinfectant in the political process.” But in February, the new governor made a 180-degree turn and closed his first Cabinet meeting to the public and the press.
Journalists across the state were baffled and enraged. Was the governor’s talk of “sunshine” just campaign rhetoric? Editorial writers around the state headed to their keyboards, criticizing the governor’s decision and arguing that his move flew in the face of the state’s open records law.
But a group of journalists and South Carolina Press Association representatives did more than just write editorials. They took action. The Press Association adopted its first resolution in years, asking the governor to open his Cabinet meetings. As SPJ’s State Sunshine Chair, I wrote a letter urging the governor to set a good example for other boards and councils throughout the state as well other state governors.
It was important to focus on this issue quickly, before the next Cabinet meeting. We can’t let FOI issues slide by because we’re too busy or the task seems too daunting. As FOI advocates, we need to tackle access issues as soon as they arise. It’s the only way to keep the sun shining.
With that mission in mind, eight journalists – including editors from the three largest daily papers – met with the governor and some of his staff to discuss opening his Cabinet meetings. Our position is that the governor’s Cabinet constitutes a public body. While the Cabinet members might not vote or need a quorum, they are public officials. They were appointed by an elected governor, they spend public funds and they make decisions that affect everyone in South Carolina. To me, that’s a public body.
But Sanford has argued that the Cabinet, legally, is not a public body. He also said the members of the Cabinet would not be able to have frank, open discussions with TV cameras and reporters in the room. Who hasn’t heard that argument from many a school board or city council? Government officials should not take government jobs if they don’t want to be scrutinized or talk in front of the press. It comes with the territory.
But Sanford said there are two things people don’t want to see being made – sausage and legislation. That was insulting to the very people who elected him. He assumed the public doesn’t want to be informed or take part in the legislative process. Should the public just sit back like good little voters and let the politicians make all the decisions and just accept whatever happens in the end? That’s not the purpose of a democracy, and it’s not why we fight so hard for access and freedom of information.
South Carolina journalists were concerned this line of thinking was going to trickle down to local boards and councils around the state.
The good news is that Sanford listened. He was open to our concerns, and we met with him for almost an hour in a thoughtful discussion.
A few days later, we received word that Sanford had changed his mind. The day after announcing his decision, the March Cabinet meeting was open to the press. I applaud the governor for being bold enough to change his mind. I hope others will follow his example and see just how important openness really is.
Holly Fisher is SPJ’s Region 3 director and a staff writer for The Summerville Journal Scene.