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Fort Mill Citizen Reporter Queries Lawmakers on Legislative Exemption to FOIA Bill

With just days remaining in the General Assembly’s regular session, time is short if a bill to substantially strengthen South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act is to pass.

H. 3235, sponsored by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, was passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. However, Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, placed a minority report on the measure, a procedural move that places a bill on the contested calendar, or essentially to the bottom of the debate list.

Among the provisions of Taylor’s bill:

  • Shortening from 15 business days to 15 calendar days the deadline for responding to an FOIA request;
  • Prohibiting state and local entities from charging fees for staff time spent complying with FOIA requests; and
  • Allowing state and local entities to charge only prevailing commercial rates for copying records.

In addition, Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington and a former board chairman of the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, earlier this year sponsored an amendment to H. 3235 that would eliminate the legislative correspondence exemption.

If passed with Quinn’s Amendment, the bill would make email and other internal legislative correspondence a matter of public record.

Larry Barnett, president of the GPS Conservatives for Action political action committee and a Fort Mill-based citizen reporter for The Nerve, questioned Sens. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, and Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, by email recently about the bill, and specifically about the legislative exemption.

Martin told Barnett he understood how the exemption appears to the average South Carolinian, but he thinks there are instances where it is warranted.

“I do believe that constituents will feel less free to offer their opinions on a wide range of issues/concerns if we make our correspondence public,” Martin wrote. 

“Constituents have contacted me about problems within state agencies that I would have never received if they thought their supervisors would learn about it,” he added.

Just about everything done in the General Assembly is online, from subcommittee meetings to measures discussed on the floor of either the House of the Senate, Martin said, adding that practically any letter or email written to him by a state or local official is in the public domain. 

“What is not subject to a FOIA request is the incoming mail and email that we receive, particularly constituents’ requests for help or assistance, in many cases of a personal nature,” he said.

“Constituents know that they can freely communicate their opinions about issues in an email or letter without fear of embarrassment or retribution, possibly from a spouse, neighbor or employer,” Martin added.

Barnett responded by email to Martin by stating that as long as everyone understands up front that correspondence with elected or administrative officials is available to the public, legislative disclosure shouldn’t be an issue.

“While it may cause some inconvenience or impose limits at times, the benefits of an open and transparent government far outweigh the possible negatives,” he said.

“I don’t doubt that there will be objections and excuses of all kinds as to why the Legislature should be exempted,” Barnett added. “(But) certainly, in your hearts, most of you know that passing this bill is the right to do.” 

Gregory told Barnett that he believes the legislative exemption should be removed.

He also specifically supports the measure in the bill that gives government bodies a time limit when responding to an FOIA request, stating that allowing two weeks to respond is “reasonable.”

Gregory said the part of the bill that holds charges to a reasonable level could be problematic, however.

There are gadflies who are too happy to use the FOIA to just create havoc, he told Barnett, referring to individuals who purportedly bombard government bodies with numerous and exhaustive FOIA requests.

“(I) don't really have an answer (to that),” Gregory admitted, but added that he would vote for the bill.

If the bill doesn’t pass by the end of the regular session, which concludes Thursday, it would have to be reintroduced and start from scratch in 2013.

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

Accountability Citizen Reporter General Assembly Legislation Transparency

FOIA Freedom of Information Act Rep. Bill Taylor