Topics/Categories

Get The Nerve in your in-box every weekday morning!

Citizen Organizes Rally to Push for FOIA Bill

An Aiken County political activist is planning a rally in Columbia next week in an effort impress upon legislators her belief in the need for a stronger Freedom of Information Act.

Jane Page Thompson, an Aiken Realtor and Republican Party stalwart, says H. 3235 is important to all South Carolinians.

Sponsored by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, the bill would strengthen the state’s open-records law in a number of ways, including: allowing state and local entities to charge only copy fees for an FOIA request, prohibiting search fees for requests, and creating a time limit for a public body to provide information.

Thompson will hold a rally at 4 p.m. on March 14 in the Rotunda of the State House, on the building’s first floor.

Taylor, Rep. Tom Young, R-Aiken; and S.C. Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly are among those scheduled to speak.

Representatives from several media and citizens groups will be on hand, including the South Carolina Press Association, Citizens for Liberty, the Media Research Association, GPS Conservatives for Action and the Palmetto Liberty Political Action Committee.

“The point of this rally is to say that if this bill is not out of the House because it’s being contested, we’re sending a reminder that November is coming and coming as fast as the dawn; and if it’s not passed, none of them are going to get re-elected this fall,” she said.

Thompson had equally strong words for the upper chamber.

“And if the bill is in the Senate, the message is that they don’t have time to mess around,” she said. “We’re going to be keeping count of who voted how and we’ll remember that when the next election for the Senate rolls around.”

One thing that has Thompson concerned is language inserted into the bill by Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, which would end the Freedom of Information Act exemption the S.C. House and Senate have enjoyed for the past three decades.

While Thompson supports the elimination of the legislative exemption, she also believes it could bring about the measure’s demise.

Quinn, a former board chairman of the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, has stood up and said that it’s time to end the practice.

“It’s an exemption the Legislature has given to itself,” Quinn told The Nerve last week. “I don’t think we should set ourselves apart from every other public body.”

Quinn’s addition is also opposed by Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association. The Nerve, through the South Carolina Policy Council, is an associate member of the Press Association.

Rogers believes H. 3235 would stand a better chance of passing without the legislative exemption, adding that what was originally a citizen-driven bill has now become politicized.

“I understand (Gov.) Nikki Haley let the bill’s sponsor know that she would veto the bill if the legislative exemption wasn’t part of it,” he told The Nerve.

Calls to Haley’s office for comment were not returned.

Thompson concedes that the addition would ultimately help grassroots groups get answers to their questions, help the press in their reporting and allow elected officials to get crucial data before they vote.

However, she believes the portion eliminating the legislative exclusion should have been introduced separately and is concerned it will prove to be a “poison pill” that will scuttle H. 3235.

“This bill is not a political football for the governor or legislators to kick around,” she said. “If it gets to the Senate with Quinn’s legislative amendment on it, it’s never going to pass; and where does that leave us?”

Thompson said the importance of strengthening the FOIA law was brought home to her in 2010 before a $236 million bond referendum was held in her home county.

Thompson and others requested information about the terms of the bond, maintenance budgets and administrative salary expenditures through several different Freedom of Information Act requests to the Aiken County School Board in the months leading up to the referendum.

“We were told it would take time to respond, which we understood,” she said. “But they didn’t answer any of the FOIAs we filed until after the referendum was held.”

One of the ways H. 3235 would strengthen the state’s FOIA law is by creating a deadline for providing requested information.

There have been other examples of cases that could be construed as an abuse of the FOIA law, as well.

  • When the New Irmo News asked Lexington-Richland School District 5 earlier this year for emails to and from the district’s seven board members and four administrators over a two-year period, the district told the publication it would cost $550,000 for the information;
  • Last year, Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, requested documents from the S.C. Department of Education, including personnel policies, contracts and the activities of Superintendent of Education Mick Zais. Leventis was told it would cost the department $497,712.31 to gather the information and make copies; and
  • In 2010, the Lexington County community of Swansea asked business owner Alberta Wasden to pay nearly $10,000 for copies of such basic information as the town’s financial statements, meeting minutes and town ordinances.

“The problem with the current FOIA law is that it allows government agencies to not provide the information requested,” Thompson added. “They say they’ll give you the information, but nothing forces them to actually hand it over. And you really have no recourse.”

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.

Accountability General Assembly Legislation Local Government Transparency

FOIA Freedom of Information Act Gov. Nikki Haley Rep. Bill Taylor