Public Monies, Chambers of Commerce and South Carolina Supreme Court

By Paul Gable

It has been nearly four months since the South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments in the v Hilton Head – Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.

The question before the court deals with whether the Chamber of Commerce is a public body and subject to the provisions of the S. C. Freedom of Information Act.

The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce (MBACC) filed an amicus curiae brief to the S. C. Supreme Court supporting the Hilton Head – Bluffton Chamber of Commerce position.

A Circuit Court judge in Bluffton County ruled in favor of Plaintiff finding the Chamber is a public body within the definition of the law.

Actually, the law is quite straightforward. Section 30-4-20 of the S. C. Code of Laws defines a public body subject to the Freedom of Information Act as, “…any organization, corporation, or agency supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds…”

The Hilton Head – Bluffton Chamber of Commerce receives accommodations tax money from the towns of Hilton Head and Bluffton as well as Beaufort County. The Chamber is the designated marketing organization for these governmental entities to expend the tax funds collected for tourism promotion.

The Chamber claimed before the Court that being the designated marketing organization for those public agencies did not negate its status as a private non-profit corporation not subject to FOIA.

The Chamber does provide a marketing budget and quarterly and year end reports for the public money to the governments involved.

In answer to a question from Justice Few about how a member of the public could find out specific information about the line items in the Chamber’s budget, the attorney for the Chamber suggested they would have to file a FOIA request with the town, who would then go to the Chamber for the specific information.

The argument was not that the public did not have a right to the information, it just didn’t have the right to request the information directly from the agency expending the funds, which is ridiculous.

Anyone familiar with the FOIA law understands how such a procedure could be considered overly burdensome on the public’s right to know how its public tax dollars are being spent. It also brings into consideration the old adage of how information becomes corrupted the more hands (or ears) it passes through.

The Court ruling on this lawsuit has significant interest in Horry County where much more than just accommodations tax funds are in the mix.

The Myrtle Beach City Council appears ready to extend the one-cent tourism development fee (TDF), which provides over $20 million annually to the MBACC, for another 10 years. The City of North Myrtle Beach has a referendum on March 6, 2018, to determine whether a TDF should be applied to purchases in the city.

Full transparency on how public tax dollars are spent is the only way to gain public confidence in the system. That transparency should come directly from the agency expending the funds as state law demands.

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