You may have noticed columns and cartoons running this week on The Sumter Item's opinion page have something in common.
It's Sunshine Week.
This annual celebration of access to public information was launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors - now News Leaders Association - and has grown into an enduring initiative to promote open government.
The basic function of FOIA, both a federal and state law, is to ensure citizens are informed and that public officials don't operate in secrecy.
South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act allows you - yes, you! - to access public documents and attend government meetings. It lets you follow how public officials make decisions on matters and policy that impact you and your community. It lets you see how the people you elect spend your tax dollars.
We need this law. If there was no need, then documents furnished in response to requests would reveal nothing unknown. Nothing hidden. Nothing government officials would prefer their constituents not know.
We know that's utopian.
Reporters are the strong arm representing the public, using FOIA to get information everyone is entitled to, knowing doing so takes time, effort and often money not everyone can expend.
Recently, FOIA has been used by Item reporters to investigate the rift between Sumter's school board and its now former superintendent; to bring to light discrepancies in the cost of an election in Paxville compared to other municipalities in Clarendon County; and to reveal potential conflicts of interest among family members employed by the county.
A partnership between The Sumter Item and Post and Courier (and 17 other newspapers) as part of the Charleston newspaper's Uncovered project has used FOIA to shine light on a former Lee County School District superintendent's actions that warranted her removal from the job, according to the state Department of Education and an independent reviewer, and the subsequent lack of consequence to that review; to reveal the Clarendon County School District 2 superintendent lived rent-free in a townhome intended for teacher recruitment; to detail how a water tank in Summerton went unchecked and uncleaned for years; and to examine how a rape claim against Sumter County's sheriff went uninvestigated by SLED.
FOIA also ensures elected officials do not discuss, make or carry out policy in private. The South Carolina General Assembly said it is "vital in a democratic society" when it passed the state version of the law in 1978.
Item reporters have ensured city council meeting policies are applied evenly, resulting in a redrafting of the rules when it comes to who can speak during meetings; highlighted votes made illegally at Sumter school board meetings; and prevented meetings and discussions from happening without proper notice to the media and public.
We're not in this business for the notoriety, for the thanks, for the image or the pay or the easy hours. We're in it on the grandest scale to carry out the First Amendment, on the smallest but no less important scale to tell stories of the local communities we call home. (Small scale, big, both the same.) To shine a light.
It's a profession that doesn't have daily glamour or often instant gratification. Everyone thinks they can do our job better than us. It can be grueling, and reporters often must fight to get ahold of documents they and the public are entitled to legally. To shine a light.
Another Sunshine Week is ending, but in newsrooms at The Sumter Item and across South Carolina, the mission never ends. While there is need for the powerful to be held accountable, with the tools of the law and the Constitution, we will shine a light.
Kayla Green is executive editor of The Sumter Item.
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