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S.C.'s State, Local Governments Lackluster in Openness Review

South Carolina’s government websites left plenty of room for improvement in a recent evaluation by Sunshine Review, a national nonprofit organization helping to lead a growing movement for transparency in public spending and other areas.

Overall, South Carolina earned a “C” in Sunshine Review’s latest examination; and of 31 states scrutinized by the organization, South Carolina ranked 28th. Only West Virginia, Kentucky and New Mexico earned a lower transparency grade.

Launched in July 2008, the Arlington, Va.-based Sunshine Review “collaborates with individuals and organizations throughout America in the cause of an informed citizenry and an accountable government,” according to its website. In the four years since its inception, Sunshine Review has evaluated more than 6,000 websites at the city, county, school district and state levels using a 10-point transparency checklist.

The checklist criteria include the availability of information on state budgets, government meetings, public officials, contracts, lobbying and taxes.

South Carolina’s state website, which accounts for half of the state’s overall grade, received a “C.” According to Sunshine Review, “South Carolina’s state website failed to make public information on taxpayer-funded lobbying (available). There are also no forms or contacts made available on the state government website for making public records requests.”

Said Sunshine Review President Michael Barnhart, in a release announcing the group’s latest marks for South Carolina, “The state website, as well as many of their city and county websites, fall well short of the transparency every taxpayer in South Carolina deserves.

“Citizens need basic information on how the public business is conducted and how public money is spent,” Barnhart added. “Without this information, citizens cannot hold government accountable.”

Jim Holly, chief of staff for state Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, who has waged a virtually one-man war for fiscal transparency in South Carolina, says Eckstrom’s efforts have come at almost no cost to taxpayers.

“That’s one thing these reports don’t address is that some states have more money to spend on websites,” Holly said in an email. “They obviously wouldn’t take into account the cost to the taxpayer.”

Striking out on his own, under no directive and with no additional resources, Eckstrom launched his campaign to bring online sunshine to government spending in South Carolina a few years ago. He began with a state fiscal transparency project, and has since expanded it to include spending by local governments, school districts and other entities.

Some were cooperative; others, resistant. But regardless, the results – in a multifaceted hub on the comptroller general’s website – have been praised both in and out of government circles.

“Our transparency site was recognized by the state Department of Archives and History as an outstanding achievement that had been established in South Carolina,” Holly noted.

Holly also pointed out that while Sunshine Review’s most recent evaluation covers many facets of South Carolina government, “It seems to have very little, if any, information on the comptroller general’s website.”

Eckstrom, he said, is continually looking for ways to improve and expand the CG’s transparency hub with no added cost to taxpayers, Holly added.

In addition to grading the state website, Sunshine Review also rated the state’s five largest counties and cities and its 10 largest school districts. The counties scored a “B minus” overall, while the cities earned a “B” and the districts a “C plus.”

Many of South Carolina’s 80-plus school districts did not fare so well, however, with more than 20 bringing home “Fs.” Those districts’ websites lost points for failing to provide archived budget documents, meeting information, tax details and instructions on how to submit S.C. Freedom of Information Act requests.

Among the rest of the state’s school districts, Aiken County made a “D,” while Richland 1 and 2 as well as the Berkeley County School District all earned “Cs.”

The Charleston County School District received a “B minus” and the Beaufort County School District an “A minus.”

South Carolina’s counties and cities fared relatively better than the state’s public schools. The websites of Richland County and Spartanburg County both garnered “Cs,” while Greenville County and Horry County received “B minuses.”

The city of Charleston received a “C,” Columbia earned a “C minus” and Mount Pleasant an unflattering “D.” These cities lost points for failing to provide contract details, tax rates and information on taxpayer-funded lobbying.

On the upside, the cities of Rock Hill and North Charleston achieved “A pluses.” Sunshine Review lauded each of those cities for posting budgets, audits, public officials’ contact information and lobbying details.

Similarly, Aiken County, Anderson County and the Pickens County School District in March were awarded the 2011 Sunny Award, which Sunshine Review bestows for government websites the group deems to be among the most transparent in the nation.

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org.

Accountability Budget Local Government Transparency

Sunshine Review S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom Michael Barnhart Jim Holly