Wednesday, March 27, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

It was another long, hard week at the statehouse. After the budget marathon the week before last, we came back to clean up those matters we neglected while working the numbers.

One of those important things we spent a lot of time on was the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) bill. As you know, my friend and colleague, Rep. Weston Newton is on Judiciary Committee and he has emerged as one of the leading voices in structuring this essential legislation. His credentials as an advocate of open government are well regarded, especially considering his long experience in this area while chairman of Beaufort County Council. Our recent experience at the Jasper Delegation meeting with the FOIA controversy during the comment period highlighted the necessity to reform this crucial window of “sunshine.” We must reform and further define the rights of citizens and news organizations in obtaining information, and the responsibilities of public officials to provide appropriate information in a timely and cost effective manner.

I am a strong advocate of open government and I fully support the elimination of the blanket legislative exemption from FOIA. It is unfair and unwise to excuse the lawmakers from the reach of the law. That said, I am concerned that there are privacy issues, especially between legislators and constituents, which must somehow be respected as we move to reform the law.

There are many conversations that I have with constituents who might, for instance, need help in getting medical attention from MUSC on holidays. That information is private. When I help people who are working through tax issues, or foreclosures, or regulatory matters with state agencies, I believe there is a legitimate expectation on the part of the constituent that our communication be held in confidence. If such an expectation is eroded, I know that taxpayers will be reluctant to ask for help with things we are there to help them with. There is obviously a delicate balance, but I would be uncomfortable in closing the door on any aspect of my constituent service. Being able to help is an important part of what I enjoy about being your representative.

While the Judiciary Committee, and especially Rep. Newton, has done good work, the debate will likely turn on how we balance the important privacy aspect, with the need to open the workings of government to cleansing and appropriate scrutiny. My best guess at this point is there will be a general distinction between constituent communication with their legislator and communications between different parts of government or different levels of government. Like I said—a delicate balance.

We are in hiatus for a couple of weeks from the statehouse, which gives me time to catch up with my constituent service. It also gives me time to survey the local business scene and see how the general uptick in economic activity is playing out locally. I’m proud to relate that Ted and Donna Huffman, owners of Bluffton Barbecue and purveyors of world class, down-home food and drink, are expanding their business. They have taken over the Cripple Crab in Hardeeville, and you can expect to find the same quality of food and service there as they offer at their flagship location in the Promenade in Old Town Bluffton.

Also, if you have not tried Fiddlehead Pizza in Bluffton, you need to get one of their pies. They are excellent. With locally sourced ingredients, Darren and his crew at Fiddlehead put out a superior product in an atmosphere that is all Bluffton.