Online

To read the Freedom of Information Act, go to postandcourier.com/foia.

Hanahan City Council just about broke the law Tuesday night, right in front of a whole mess of witnesses.

Council was discussing a controversial rezoning for the Berkeley County School District that would have allowed it to build a new elementary school in Tanner Plantation.

Just before the meeting, the school district dumped a new document on the council and somebody got the bright idea to go into "executive session" to discuss it.

That means meeting in private, out of the public's earshot.

Brenda Rindge, The Post and Courier reporter at the meeting, asked them which exemption to the Freedom of Information Act they were invoking to get behind closed doors.

And, well, they didn't have one. So they didn't go into executive session, instead hashing out the deal - which they eventually killed - with an audience. As it should be.

Mayor Minnie Newman-Caldwell thanked Rindge for saving the city a call to its attorney, and a good bit of money. Legal advice ain't free, you know.

Yep, Hanahan city officials just about broke the law but, to their credit, didn't.

If only other government boards would learn a lesson from this.

It's always something

Jay Bender, the state's legal expert on open meetings and all things FOIA, is hardly surprised by this.

"This happens somewhere in the state every day," he says. "A town council talks in private, a school board tries to vote on a superintendent's evaluation in executive session."

He's right. Just in the past year, nearly every public body in the Lowcountry has one offense.

Last week, North Charleston City Council and Charleston County School Board members announced they would discuss changes to a tax increment financing district in executive session. They can call it a contract, but they are really talking about how to spend our tax dollars. We ought to hear it.

Earlier this fall, Charleston County Council talked about where to put a new landfill while in executive session. As you might imagine, a lot of people were caught off-guard by the subsequent vote.

In the past, Dorchester 2 and Berkeley County school boards have tried to discuss their superintendents' evaluations - and even vote on them - out of public view. This summer, the Charleston County Aviation Authority also took an unexplained trip to the back room to hash out something.

This is not some high-falutin' media issue with no bearing on the lives of regular folks. The Hanahan meeting was a standing-room-only crowd of people who wanted to know what was going to happen to their neighborhood.

And they had a right to know.

Ignorance of the law ...

Of course, some things just have to be discussed in private for legal reasons. But those should be few and far between.

A lot of times these government bodies feign ignorance of the law. And they are probably being honest.

Try using that excuse to get out of a speeding ticket.

Bender says the state's Municipal Association offers classes for local governments to learn about the Freedom of Information Act - pushes it harder than the South Carolina Press Association, in fact. But usually, it takes the media calling these folks out to stop errant executive sessions.

That doesn't happen often enough, Bender says. Rindge deserves a medal of freedom. Of information.

"It's something in the water," Bender says. "These people are impervious to education."

So Hanahan City Council did the right thing Tuesday night.

Of course, that morning two council members and two Berkeley school board members met to iron out details of the rezoning.

And that, Bender says, was illegal.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com