- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

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July 23

The Herald-Journal of Spartanburg on the public meetings law:

All public bodies in South Carolina should be paying attention to a court ruling against the Newberry County Council this month. They should look at the decision and re-examine their use of secrecy.

The principle behind the ruling applies to every county council, every city and town council, every school board and every entity that operates on government funding. They all have an obligation to let the public know what they are doing. They all have an obligation to let taxpayers know how they are spending their money.

Too often they don’t. Many of our public bodies routinely lock the public out of their discussions. They meet to discuss public business behind closed doors. They cite a vague reason that doesn’t come close to satisfying the state’s public meeting law.

But they know that the state law, the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, lacks teeth. They know that too few individuals or institutions are willing to undertake the expensive litigation necessary to force them to obey the law. So they break it with impunity.

Sometimes, someone is willing to sue to enforce the law. The Newberry County Council ran into one such public-minded citizen in attorney Desa Ballard. She believed the council had met behind closed doors to discuss a matter important to her client. She sued the county, claiming it had ejected the public out of its meetings improperly.

State law allows public bodies to meet behind closed doors to discuss a few very specific matters, and those bodies are supposed to specify which matters they are discussing before they vote to keep the public out of their meeting.

But in general practice, public bodies just state which general section of the law they are claiming gives them legal reason to go into closed session. For instance, they will say they are going behind closed doors to discuss contractual matters without saying which contract they are discussing.

That’s what Newberry County was accused of doing. Council members cited their reasons for closed session “in such a general way that the specific topic of the actual executive session was hidden … (and) the public had no way of knowing what was being discussed,” Judge Thomas Russo wrote.

The judge ruled that the council has to be much more specific about why it is eliminating the public from its meetings. It also has to cover all of Ballard’s legal fees.

This problem is not limited to Newberry County. We had a town council in the Upstate meet behind closed doors to discuss spending taxpayers’ money on an incentive program to lure new businesses to town. We have seen a county council meet behind closed doors to work on the county budget.

We have councils and school boards that close the public out of their meetings routinely, citing only the vague reasons of “personnel matters” or “receiving legal information.” Those general reasons are not enough under the law.

Judge Russo is right to insist that you have a right to know what your city or county council or your school board is doing. They should rarely meet behind closed doors, and when they do, they are required to let you know what they’re talking about.

Online: https://www.goupstate.com/

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July 23

The Aiken Standard on a traffic stop lawsuit:

A little more than a year has passed since a federal lawsuit alleging Aiken police officers conducted an illegal roadside cavity search became public knowledge.

Filed in September 2015 in circuit court, and then moved to federal court in November 2015, the case garnered international attention in April 2016.

On July 21, the Aiken Standard reported five individually named co-defendants have had the civil cases against them dismissed, according to a stipulation of partial dismissal filed July 20.

The City of Aiken and Aiken Public Safety Department were also named in the suit filed by Elijah Pontoon and Lakeya Hicks. A $150,000 settlement has been reached, according to documents provided by the City of Aiken.

Court records relative to that agreement had not been filed as of press time. An Aiken spokesman said those records should be filed in federal court in coming days.

It must be emphasized that a settlement is not an admission of culpability or wrongdoing by either party. A memo from the City’s insurer to the City affirms as much.

“This settlement is in resolution of a doubtful and disputed claim,” the memo says. “This settlement does not represent an admission of liability on the part of the City of Aiken or any of its law enforcement officers.

“The decision to settle this lawsuit was based upon a variety of factors, including an assessment of the costs of litigation moving forward,” the memo continues.

In an April 10, 2016 editorial appearing in the Aiken Standard, we presented a similar message. We commended the City of Aiken, its elected leaders and staff for swiftly responding to the lawsuit and enacting additional policies aimed at increasing racial sensitivity. That viewpoint hasn’t changed.

We’ve closely followed the Pontoon case in the past 15 months.

In April, when it became apparent that a Citizen’s Advisory Board formed to address police complaints hadn’t met since its formation a year earlier, we published a news story and an editorial on the subject. The board has since organized, meeting in May and again last week.

Accountability has increased.

The Pontoon lawsuit story went viral last year, shortly after a Washington Post blog post in April 2016. We commend the blogger for breaking the story; doing so greatly increased public awareness about the lawsuit and potential issues at Aiken Public Safety. It also raised awareness in general about police-public interactions.

In subsequent writings, however, the blogger stated there’s been an “utter lack of coverage” of the Pontoon suit, after lawsuits were filed. It’s also been suggested that we don’t adequately cover police-public relations, inferring we’re part of the problem. These assertions are false.

A search of our archives found 44 news stories and editorials about the Pontoon lawsuit. We followed the case daily in the federal court database, reporting on new developments as they occurred.

Lately, we’ve been covering the Citizen Review Board meetings. And we were first to cover the partial dismissal and settlement.

This newspaper also spent considerable time and resources covering the case of Justin Craven, a former North Augusta Public Safety officer charged following an officer involved shooting involving an African-American victim. In that case, we initiated litigation to force the release of dashcam video that had been withheld. Suggesting a lack of press attention to police-public relations is erroneous.

Our position that the City of Aiken acted with transparency and courage has not changed. All too often, public agencies named as defendants in civil suits hide behind “no comment.” Aiken leaders didn’t do that. They spoke clearly, concisely and openly. Now the case is essentially over. We hope all sides regard one another amicably.

There’s so much more to Aiken than the concluding litigation. We have top notch equestrian facilities and shows, festivals and events virtually every week, and we’re less than a half-hour from The Masters. The total eclipse will be passing through Aiken County next month.

Aiken has so much to offer visitors. Our city is open to people of all races, religions, genders or any other group, including bloggers and opinion journalists.

Online: https://www.aikenstandard.com/

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July 25

The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg on eye safety and the upcoming solar eclipse:

The solar eclipse in August is fast becoming one of the major leisure events of the year, maybe even the decade.

It seems that nearly every venue of size in South Carolina is planning a viewing event. Orangeburg, one of only six locations in the state where the total blackout of the sun will be visible, is a prime site.

The partial phase of the eclipse is expected to begin around 1:14 p.m. with the sun to be totally blacked out at 2:43 p.m.

Excitement is building.

And so is the concern. “Viewing” could leave many with permanent eye damage if appropriate caution is not taken.

The real worry is how many people will look at the sun on that day in the varying stages of diminishing sunlight. If they do so without appropriate eye protection, it will result in eye damage.

And no matter how many warnings are sounded, it will be shocking how few people heed them or even know about the danger - or even know about the eclipse until daylight moves toward darkness during the day on Aug. 21.

Count us among those wanting people to enjoy the eclipse experience as sunlight being totally blocked by the position of the moon is a rare event.

And count us among those stunned by websites and so-called experts proclaiming the danger is being overblown. Their message is that people can look safely at the sun that day when the eclipse is total, which is accurate.

But viewing the eclipse without proper eye protection when the sun is partially blocked, right up to the point when the eclipse is nearing totality (even at 99 percent), will do damage to the human eye. If safety is not stressed, how many people will look without protection at varying stages because the everyday inability to look at the sun is not a factor for a period of up to two hours?

We worry many will.

Reporting for Space.com, Hanneke Weitering writes that eclipse blindness may not even be realized until the day after when people wake to discover their vision has become impaired.

While peripheral vision is usually spared, the center of vision is affected because that is the part of the retina responsible for seeing in high resolution and in color. Most patients are legally blind when they go to see an eye doctor.

Weitering reports the prognosis is nearly impossible to determine. About half will recover full vision in six months. The other half either partially recover or are stuck with the problem for the rest of their lives.

The key to seeing the eclipse will be to use approved glasses during the partial phase. When the sun is totally blocked, however, nothing will be visible with the glasses. That leaves people to decide whether they wish to gamble on totality, when viewing with the naked eye is OK.

Considering that one’s eyes are invaluable, it’s a decision each individual will have to make.

Eyewear for viewing the eclipse is not expensive and will be available at the many events. But, again, what about people having no glasses or not even being aware of what is happening until the eclipse is unfolding?

Eye professionals are likely to be busy in the days after Aug. 21.

Online: https://thetandd.com/

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