The town of Swansea wants a business owner to pay nearly $10,000 for copies of such basic information as the Lexington County community’s financial statements, meeting minutes and town ordinances.
Alberta Wasden, a Swansea accountant, filed a Freedom of Information Act request in late July for the information, and also sought data on business licenses and paperwork related to grants or federal funding to Swansea.
Her request dates back as far as 2004 for some material, and to 2008 for other information.
Wasden, a citizen reporter for The Nerve, said her request was prompted by concerns over the handling of town finances and questions about how the town was being operated.
“I figured this was information they should be able to produce easily at a minimal cost,” she said. “In many towns and counties, this is information that can be found online, in fact.
“I didn’t ask for anything that isn’t supposed to be public record,” Wasden added.
Wasden said she was staggered when she received a response from the town of Swansea dated Aug. 9 and signed by Mayor Ray Spires that stated that “The total estimated cost to the town to comply with your FOIA request is approximately $9,996.25.”
Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said the price tag seems extremely high for what is being requested, particularly given that many other communities are able to provide the same data online at no charge.
“Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money,” he said. “That’s an extremely high amount for a citizen to have to pay to get access to public records and it’s a deterrent to accountability.”
The deterrent factor comes in because those seeking information who don’t want to pay the high costs are left with just two options: file a lawsuit or go away. “And unfortunately it costs money to sue,” Rogers added.
The town wrote that it based its figure on a 10-cent per-page copying fee and a per-hour cost of $21.85 for researching and copying materials.
Swansea officials requested that Wasden provide a deposit of $4,916.25 before it would begin compiling the information requested.
“We ran everything by our attorney and that’s what we came up with,” Spires said. “You’re looking at a lot of boxes of stuff. I’m not sure she really knows what she wants.”
Spires said that what’s driving up the cost is that town staff will have to go through some of the material and redact information such as Social Security numbers, which takes time.
However, a breakdown of the anticipated costs shows transparency may not be paramount in the community of approximately 500.
Swansea officials are asking Wasden to pay an estimated $6,622 alone for the town’s financial statements and meeting minutes for the period 2005-2010. They’re estimating that they will need to copy approximately 40,000 pages and that it will take approximately 120 hours to retrieve and copy the documents.
"I want the auditor’s copy of the town’s annual statement and I also want the records to back it up to show that money is being spent without the town council’s approval,” Wasden said.
Earlier this year it was revealed that town officials planned to take up to 10 years to pay off $473,251 owed to the state for improperly keeping state court fines.
Swansea officials failed to forward the state share of fines imposed in municipal court – mainly for traffic violations – from 2004-07. Instead, those revenues paid salaries of the 10-member town staff and unspecified bills.
Spires and other town leaders blame the debt on bad advice, according to a January story in The State newspaper.
An audit of town finances showed that Spires spent the money without authorization from the Town Council.
When asked by Wasden late last year about the misappropriated money, Spires replied, “This is none of your business. You need to go back home and leave this alone. I have handled it.”
Spires reiterated that message to Wasden a short time later: “I told you to go home. I have handled it and that is all you need to know.”
Spires won re-election as mayor last November. Two town councilmen frustrated largely with Spires’ leadership on town finances resigned subsequently.
Swansea is also asking for $937 from Wasden for copying and providing the town’s codes and ordinances, which Rogers thinks is ridiculous.
“I would think a person should be able to walk in and say I’d like to see the ordinances, and it should be in a big book somewhere,” he said. “How can the public be expected to follow the law if they can’t get a copy of it?”
Spires said the issue is that Wasden wants not only the current ordinances, but ordinances that have been revised since 2004. “She’s asked for any and all changes to ordinances,” he said.
Wasden said she wants to know why a town the size of Swansea has 5,000 pages of ordinances and why there have been so many revisions and additions.
“How many changes do you need to make?” she asked. “I’ve lived in Aiken County off and on my whole life and there have been very few ordinance changes there. What we’re trying to find out is what’s going on?”
Wasden has also requested copies of business licenses issued by the town between March 1, 2008, and July 25, 2010. Officials responded that it would cost about $190, for the approximately 800 pages of information on business licenses.
“The town of Swansea doesn’t even have 800 residents; why would there be 800 pages of business licenses compiled over the past two years or so?” Wasden asked.
In an attempt to hold down costs, Wasden said she offered to come in and copy the information herself (she said she has equipment that would enable her to make copies within the town’s offices), but Swansea officials said that won’t affect the bottom line.
"We’d still have to have somebody there with her to pull stuff and mark out Social Security numbers and other sensitive information,” Spires said.
The big fee the town is attaching to fulfilling Wasden’s request runs counter to the nationwide general trend of increased transparency. Communities big and small across the nation are moving more toward putting information such as budgets, check registers and council agendas and minutes online, allowing citizens to access the data at no cost.
Just down the road in Aiken, for example, individuals can peruse the city’s check register and ordinance code online, and inspect Aiken’s comprehensive annual financial reports dating back to the early 1990s and audit reports all the way back to the mid-1950s.
In addition, Aiken City Council agendas dating back to the 1950s are available online, as are meeting minutes.
Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022, ext. 110, or at firstname.lastname@example.org