Report: S.C. Short on Transparency

January 11, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveSouth Carolina counties collectively have earned the state a top-10 ranking in a new nationwide analysis of online government accessibility and transparency, but they still have a long way to go.

For its part, state government earned a not so flattering C-minus in the review.

The state’s grade could be considered surprising because S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom has vigorously advocated Internet-based government transparency, which has mushroomed into a growing movement in South Carolina and across the country.

Eckstrom, a self-described bean counter, is a certified public accountant whose job essentially is to act as state government’s bookkeeper. All spending by nearly every S.C. agency goes through his office.

A transparency Web site, sunshinereview.org, compiled the report. Sunshine Review is a project of the Sam Adams Alliance, a nonprofit headquartered in Chicago.

Perhaps the first of its kind, the Sunshine Review study is far reaching. “We’ve evaluated all counties in the U.S.,” says Kristin McMurray, senior editor of the project. The review also looked at all state Web sites.

Grades for counties were assigned based on how well they make information about 10 things accessible via their Internet portals: budgets, meetings, elected officeholders, administrative officials, permits and zoning, audits, contracts, lobbying, public records and taxes.

State marks were calculated on most of the same factors but took into account usability and ethics in place of meetings and permits and zoning.

Four of South Carolina’s 46 counties do not have Web sites, according to Sunshine Review. But combined, the remaining 42 earned South Carolina a No. 10 ranking among the states.

The South Carolina Association of Counties, which employs lobbyists and whose county members pay dues to belong to the association, does not play an advocacy role in encouraging its members to go transparent online, says the group’s deputy general counsel, Robert Croom.

Anderson County fared best in the Sunshine Review evaluation, receiving an A-plus by supplying all 10 categories of information – one of only four counties in the nation to do so. Greenville was second best, with a B-minus in meeting eight of the criteria.

Richland got a sorry D-minus, posting only four of them. Lexington was much better, receiving a B-minus by adhering to 7 of the 10.

The study details good and bad points about each site. Included in the bad for Richland and Lexington: Neither one discloses whether it belongs to taxpayer-funded lobbying associations. Both also fail to offer the 411 on how to file a request for information and documents under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The report says the state site, at cg.sc.gov, is similarly lacking in those two areas.

“We think we get an ‘A’ in the area of spending transparency,” Eckstrom says in an e-mail from his spokesman, R.J. Shealy, “but when they look at other areas, things like whether government contracts and lobbyists’ records are online they’re absolutely right – there’s much more that needs to be done.

Hopefully the Legislature will make transparency a top priority (this session), and we think it will.”

Toward that end, Eckstrom continues to spearhead the movement for greater online government transparency in South Carolina. At his direction, his office has expanded its transparency site to track the state’s stimulus funding and the finances of local governments that want to join the project.

A dozen or so have, and the CG is encouraging others to get on board with the effort.

Reach Ward at (803) 779-5022, ext. 117, or eric@scpolicycouncil.com.