A gathering Wednesday in support of legislation to strengthen the state’s Freedom of Information Act represented the first citizens’ rally in favor of open government and the Freedom of Information Act that South Carolina Press Association Executive Director Bill Rogers recalls witnessing in his 20-plus years around the State House.
“This bill can go a long way toward rectifying the abuses that are widespread in South Carolina,” Rogers said.
The Nerve is an associate member of the Press Association through its parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council.
The bill is H. 3235, introduced by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken. It seeks to 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.
“What we’ve introduced will put real teeth in the FOIA law,” Taylor said at Wednesday's rally. “We’re just asking all public entities to get with the 21st century. How about putting most of the material they have online?”
“Get with the new age and don’t resist it. Put things up online where everyone can see it,” he added. “That’s real transparency.”
The rally was organized by Jane Page Thompson, an Aiken Realtor and Republican Party activist.
Thompson said average South Carolinians have little recourse under current law if they attempt to procure information from a government entity but the body doesn’t want to turn over requested records.
In that regard, H. 3235 goes beyond attempting to help citizens to obtain information from state, county and local governments, however.
It would also end a Freedom of Information Act exemption the S.C. House and Senate have enjoyed for the past three decades, allowing them to conceal their internal communications and working papers.
“As best I can tell, in researching it myself, I’ve yet to be able to find another state in the country that has an out-and-out exemption for members of the General Assembly,” Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, said during the rally.
Quinn introduced the language into the bill to do away with the legislative exemption.
“If people are going to have a belief in the integrity of the process, giving a whole branch an exemption is wrong,” added Quinn, former board chairman of the South Carolina Policy Council.
Thompson earlier told The Nerve that the necessity of bolstering South Carolina’s FOIA law was made evident to her in 2010 in the months leading up to a $236 million bond referendum held in Aiken County.
Thompson was among a handful of individuals who requested information about the terms of the bond, maintenance budgets and administrative salary expenditures through several different FOIA requests to the Aiken County School Board during the period leading up to the referendum.
Answers to their FOIAs weren’t provided until after the referendum was held, she said.
One of the ways H. 3235 would strengthen the state’s FOIA law is by creating a deadline for providing requested information.
Currently, the law only requires that a public body or official respond within 15 working days whether records are available; under Taylor's bill, the information would have to be turned over within 30 business days.
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 state $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 told The Nerve earlier this month. “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 email@example.com.