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Summary of recent South Carolina newspaper editorials

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

Sept. 30

The Post and Courier of Charleston on debates in the South Carolina-U.S. Senate campaigns:

Politically, neither Tim Scott nor Lindsey Graham has much to gain by debating his opponents for his Senate seat.

Sen. Scott and Sen. Graham both are considered strong candidates. Both are incumbents. Both are Republicans in a heavily Red state. And neither has an opponent who appears to pose a serious threat, according to the polls.

But while Election Day is all about who gets the most votes, the period leading up to it is - or should be - a time for voters to learn about the candidates, their records and their goals. Those with enough money can try to get across their carefully crafted messages through campaign advertising. But citizens deserve a more spontaneous forum from which to hear from the candidates - to compare what they say and how they say it under pressure.

Anyone who wants to serve in the Senate shouldn't be uneasy about speaking his mind. That's what senators do.

In the case of these two races, the long-shot opponents say they'd like a chance to debate. Mr. Graham faces S.C. Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, Libertarian Victor Kocher and independent candidate Thomas Ravenel. Mr. Scott faces Democrat Joyce Dickerson, who is a member of Richland County Council, and American Party candidate Jill Bossi.

Those opponents have little to lose - and greater potential for gain by a debate.

But neither incumbents nor challengers should shy away from letting the voters know where they stand.

Online:

http://www.postandcourier.com


Sept. 30

Greenville News on a victory for Freedom of Information Act proponents:

After two painful losses before the South Carolina Supreme Court, there has been a small victory for the Freedom of Information Act in a case involving Greenville businessman and open-government activist Edward "Ned" Sloan. The man who has sued a number of state and local agencies, often successfully, has been paid $18,000 in fees and costs related to a 2012 FOIA request that was handled improperly by the state Department of Revenue.

The victory does not create earth-shattering changes regarding open government but it does affirm part of the FOIA and protects the spirit of this important law. The effect of the court's ruling was negligible because it comes well after DOR produced documents that were being sought by Sloan, and as the court noted the "request for injunctive relief was mooted by DOR's production" of the records.

Nevertheless, the state Supreme Court's opinion is welcome news. As Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, told Greenville News reporter Tim Smith, the ruling should be good news for the public. Some state agencies spend months producing records sought through a FOIA request, and the law tightly defines the process that an agency must follow.

That process was not followed appropriately when Sloan filed a request in 2012 for public documents related to the procurement of a cyber-security firm after DOR's computer system was hacked. Millions of Social Security and bank account numbers were exposed in what has been called a breach involving international hackers, and Gov. Nikki Haley rushed to reassure nervous taxpayers that the state was aggressively acting to protect their most sensitive personal information.

DOR responded on Dec. 10, 2012, to Sloan's request made on Nov. 19, 2012. The agency said his request was currently being researched and reviewed, and the requested information would be sent to him as soon as it had been compiled. But then a paragraph was added: "If we are unable to locate, obtain or release the requested file(s) you will be notified of the decision and the reasons for it."

That curious sentence may not have troubled a novice filing a FOIA request, but Sloan knows the state law inside and out. He and his organization, the South Carolina Public Interest Foundation, filed a lawsuit seeking the information and a declaratory judgment that the agency had violated the FOIA, plus attorney fees and costs. DOR produced the documents three weeks after the suit was filed.

State law has precise wording in this area, as the court noted in the majority opinion written by Associate Justice John Kittredge. The one sentence added to DOR's response "is best characterized as 'we will get to it when we get to it,' which is manifestly at odds with the clarity mandated" by the relevant section of the FOIA.

A lower court had ruled Sloan's issue was moot and denied his request for fees. Kittredge was joined by Chief Justice Jean Toal and Associate Justice Donald Beatty in remanding the case back "to the trial court for an award of reasonable attorney's fees and costs to Sloan." Meanwhile DOR opted to pay Sloan $18,000 in attorney fees and costs to end the matter, and DOR said it is evaluating its procedures for responding to a FOIA request.

This small victory for affirming how the FOIA works is important after two serious blows were dealt to this "Sunshine Law" earlier this year. In one case the court seemed to ignore the intent of the FOIA when it ruled that autopsy records are exempt from the law because they are medical records and therefore not a public document. That case came from Sumter County where the local newspaper sued because the coroner would not release an autopsy after a 25-year-old man was shot by police.

Earlier this year the Supreme Court ruled that public bodies do not have to publish a detailed agenda in advance of a meeting. This ruling reflected a dangerously limited view of the state law designed to ensure citizens have access to the actions and records of public bodies and public officials.

If the Legislature takes the hints of the Supreme Court and tweaks the FOIA in the areas affected by these three rulings, it should avoid diminishing a law already weaker than the one that protects citizens in many states. South Carolina's FOIA should be made stronger and not more restrictive.

Online:

http://www.greenvilleonline.com


Sept. 25

The Morning News of Florence on whether the state should look at appointing sheriffs:

The Sheriff of Nottingham was the crown's local representative, tasked with maintaining order on the trade routes and keeping folks from poaching the king's deer.

Of course, we know the sheriff also had an unhealthy obsession with the wily Robin Hood (and his lady, Maid Marian) and often used his powers to scheme and manipulate.

A millennium or so has passed (depending on which Robin Hood version you follow), but the office of the sheriff still wields a considerable amount of power as the conservator of peace. A sheriff's authority is even more evident in more rural areas.

Unlike the weasely lawman of Sherwood Forest, sheriffs today are seldom appointed; they are elected by the people in 46 of the 50 states. Also, sheriffs today are mostly honorable, we'd say — but there are a few Nottinghams out there.

When Lexington County Sheriff James Metts pleaded not guilty to federal bribery and fraud charges this summer, he became the eighth South Carolina sheriff in four years to run into legal problems.

Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson was found guilty last week of conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with an identity theft scam that relied on Johnson fabricating false police records.

It's a sad day when those elected to uphold the law can't abide by it.

It also (again) raises the question: Is this an office we should be electing anyway?

First, let us say this: The office of sheriff is an important one. Running a jail, executing warrants, supervising patrols, coordinating emergency efforts — these are all significant tasks that keep a county in order. Sure, police work is not uniformly efficient or industrious, but we are well protected. Our lawmen — including county, city and state departments — work hard. A good portion of our tax dollars are well spent.

But, we also see an office that (much like coroner and register of deeds) is subject to partisan politics, and we question the need for that in local law enforcement.

When someone is elected, essentially what we are saying is that the judgments of that office warrant the direct oversight of the voters. We ask for supervision on sheriffs, but not police chiefs, who are appointed by representatives who are elected.

In an appointive process, some will argue, candidates are better qualified and more rigorously screened than in an elective process.

In South Carolina, depending on level of education, anyone running for sheriff is required to have at least one year as a certified law enforcement officer. Considering the position, that's not a wealth of experience. Hypothetically, a 23-year-old with a four-year degree and a year as a lawman under his or her belt could run a whale of a campaign and become sheriff.

Also, as a political position, sheriffs, unlike police chiefs or other law enforcement officials, are obligated to campaign contributors. The sheriff's race can often be the most expensive local race, and internal support can fracture a department.

But, electing an office does provide a system of checks and balances. Sheriffs are not beholden to county councilmen or supervisors.

They are, in theory, directly responsible to the citizens.

... Sheriff elections certainly aren't going away anytime soon. But if the recent rash of offices defiled in South Carolina is any indication, it's a position voters should scrutinized a bit more.

Online:

http://www.scnow.com

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