Editor’s Note: In June, Nerve Citizen Reporter Tom Hatfield of Hilton Head helped launch a new initiative for The Nerve called the “Delegation Watchdog Project.” The purpose of the project is to encourage county legislative delegations to hold regular public meetings with their constituents. Following is a story about another Citizen Reporter’s experience with the project. At the end of the story is an accompanying video by videographer intern Ashley Hinkel.
“There’s just not that accountability,” laments Citizen Reporter Talbert Black of South Carolina’s political system, while describing the drive behind his involvement in the Delegation Watchdog Project.
Right now Black, a Lexington County resident, is pushing the county’s legislative delegation not only to meet regularly, but also to promote its meetings so the public can attend.
“They don’t hold these meetings, and they should,” Black told The Nerve. “Delegations need to report to citizens.”
Black said delegation meetings should be viewed as an opportunity to inform constituents about what is going on at the State House, particularly given recent public criticism about the Legislature’s lack of transparency.
The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C., recently ranked South Carolina as the worst state in the nation in terms of access to public information.
South Carolina’s government websites similarly received average to poor marks for transparency when evaluated earlier this year by the Sunshine Review, a nonprofit organization in Virginia that grades government websites nationwide.
“One of the things we ended on (this last legislative session) was Freedom of Information Act rules,” Black said. “If they had been holding delegation meetings, I certainly would’ve brought that up.”
Black said he became involved with the Delegation Watchdog Project earlier this summer, when he e-mailed Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and Rep. Todd Atwater, R-Lexington, about whether they held meetings regularly, and if those meetings were open to the public.
Black said according to Atwater, the delegation meetings were designed for legislators to assemble and decide where they stood on issues or what appointments they intended to make; they were not arranged with the public in mind.
“They’re not necessarily private,” Black said, “but they’re not advertising them either.”
Moreover, Black said the meetings do not occur regularly, but instead are held on an “as-needed basis.”
“Massey does hold town hall meetings, but it’s just him,” Black said. “That’s great for his constituents, but it’s not great for the rest of Lexington.”
Lexington County’s senatorial delegation is made up of Sen. John Courson, R-Richland and the Senate president pro tempore; Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry; Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington; and Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington.
Lexington’s House delegates are Rep. Todd Atwater, R-Lexington; Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland; Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington and the House majority leader; Rep. Marion Frye, R-Lexington; Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Lexington; Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Newberry; Rep. Harry Ott, D-Calhoun and the House minority leader; Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington; Rep. Kit Spires, R- Lexington; and Rep. Mac Toole, R-Lexington.
Massey is not listed on the General Assembly’s website as a Lexington County delegation member. He told The Nerve that part of the county was moved to his district – effective with the November election – because of reapportionment, or the redrawing of legislative district lines to reflect population changes.
Black said his next step is to follow up with Atwater and “get them to hold an open-forum delegation meeting.”
Delegation meetings have never been covered as thoroughly as floor debates in the General Assembly. To foster government transparency and accountability, Nerve Citizen Reporters like Black are encouraging delegates to hold more open meetings, which the reporters plan to cover.
Delegations that do not meet regularly will be encouraged by Citizen Reporters to do so. Accordingly, Black said he intends to contact Atwater and ask him when the next meeting is scheduled to happen.
“If there is no meeting scheduled, then myself and other citizen leaders will get together and determine a time and place to get them to come,” he said.
“We need a place to hold these meetings,” Black continued. “We need to have a place where people can meet with their representatives and hold them accountable.
“We need to get the delegates together as a whole and address countywide issues as a whole.”
When asked by The Nerve if he had specific interests he would like to bring to the delegation’s attention, Black replied, “I’m very interested in what they plan to do in regard to the ‘Eight Barriers to Freedom,’ and whether they will support changes recommended by the Policy Council.”
Black was referring to an eight-point reform agenda released recently by the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve.
Citizen Reporters have attended and reported on other types of government meetings, and have been active in other ways, such as filing requests with government agencies under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. The Delegation Watchdog Project gives Citizen Reporters another opportunity to engage directly with their representatives.
Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.