- Special Sections
- Public Notices
I am constantly amazed that information from public financial records and even annual budgets is withheld, not just from the public, but from the voting board members who must approve budgets and expenditures.
Take Lexington-Richland District 5 school board, for instance.
Board members approved a $150 million budget June 25, even though they had not seen the full detailed budget, only a partial summary that did not balance.
One board member, Kim Murphy, asked for more financial information and reports that were missing before the vote. She did not get what she asked for (and they have not yet responded to her questions).
I think she was right to vote “no” on an incomplete budget that did not balance. Unfortunately, the other more-sheepish board members didn’t stand up, and a pig-in-a-poke was approved.
And in the little town of Rowesville, a council member there asked to see the town’s financial reports for certain months. She was given blank sheets with only the fund headers and no details. When asked about expenditure details, the town clerk wrote in a letter to her: “I have never nor will I start copying bank statements for council members.”
As her request lingered on and her term ended, the council voted not to give her the past records, in direct violation of state law. A letter, signed by the mayor and current council, said “we will not give you anything else from the past years. We feel this takes up too much of the clerk’s time…”
What are these board members thinking? Who is driving this train of secrecy? The public deserves better.
Our state’s attorney general has made it clear in his opinions that public board members have a clear right to see any and all of their agency’s financial records.
In a Rock Hill case, the AG was asked if a school board member is legally required to receive approval from the superintendent of the school district or from the district office before visiting a school. He was also asked whether a board member has access to all district records.
“It is my opinion that because of your status as a school board member, you are legally authorized to visit schools in the district without district office approval and that you have access to all records of the school district,” the opinion continued.
In Anderson County, a council member complained of having difficulties obtaining records from county officials.
The attorney general replied: “Prior opinions of this office make it clear that members of a county council, such as yourself, are entitled to access to county records….a member of the governing body of an entity needs access to such records to be able to do the job he or she was elected to do.” The opinion said council members should also have access to personnel records, even if they don’t have power to hire and fire because “the county council is the policy-making and ultimate decision-making body …
“In short, a member of county council must have access to all pertinent information regarding the operation of county government. Just as each member of the General Assembly has a right to access to information not made privileged or confidential by law concerning the operation of state government. So, too, does a council member have a right to such access with respect to county government.”
The AG concluded: “Access to such county government information must be provided in a timely, easily readable manner…we advise that you as a member of county council have a right of access to the information concerning the operation of the business of Anderson County.”
Unfortunately, having the right to see public documents and having the guts to demand that they be handed over are two different things.