Sunshine Laws ensure the public can know what the government is doing

By: Jonathan Martin
By: Jonathan Martin

This is Sunshine Week, where many journalists focus on freedom of information laws.

But it's not just for TV stations and newspapers. It's about open records and shedding light on the government.

"It's all the more essential now that the public has the ability to know what's going on," says media lawyer David Hudson. Hudson says Sunshine Laws are not just for the media, but more for the public.

"When it comes to how the government operates, how the tax money is being spent, what the government is planning to do in terms of a project or rezoning, or how the government is evaluating the performance of its own employees, the public needs to know that," Hudson says.

Under Georgia and South Carolina law, you have the right to see and copy all public records...that includes all documents, maps, tapes, computer records, and photographs.

"It's important for people to be able to go and find out information, especially about your government and this government, we got that thing and I think that the Sunshine law is a good thing," says Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams.

But as a previous News 12 undercover investigation showed, the law is not always followed.

We wanted a list of inmates in the Richmond County jail. That's public information...but we were told it was private.

But when the law is followed as designed, it can hold people accountable.

It's how News 12's Domonique Benn uncovered medical malpractice complaints against a former Aiken County doctor, resulting in a federal and state investigation.

It's also how Laurie Ott obtained records from the state auditor and attorney general's office that led to the indictment of state school superintendent Linda Shrenko.

And Hudson says while many may not be aware of the laws or choose not to follow them, they'll always be needed: "These laws are essential if democracy is going to work."

Under the Sunshine Laws, most government meetings are open to the public.

Some things to keep in mind when you request public information:

  • You don't have to identify yourself.

  • The agency has three business days to respond.

  • The agency cannot charge you more than 25 cents a page to make a copy.

  • If they don't comply, it's a criminal offense.
For much more on freedom of information laws, click here.

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