An S.C. House member on Tuesday reintroduced a bill proposing major reforms in the state’s open-records law, and added more enforcement teeth in his latest version.
A controversial provision that would eliminate the exemption for state lawmakers’ working papers was not included in Rep. Bill Taylor’s latest bill (H. 3163). His initial bill bogged down in the Senate this year after an amendment eliminating the exemption was added at the request of another House member.
The Nerve has repeatedly pointed out that the S.C. Freedom of Information Act allows lawmakers to refuse to release their emails, letters, memos and other working documents, which can keep the public in the dark about what they’re doing.
Contacted Tuesday, Taylor, R-Aiken and a former television reporter, told The Nerve that although he supports eliminating the legislative exemption, he believes that including that provision in his bill likely would doom it again.
“I want to get the people’s bill through, so I did not include that,” he said.
The legislative-exemption amendment in Taylor’s original bill was authored by Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington. Taylor said Quinn in June informed him that he would not push for the amendment again if the bill were reintroduced next year.
“If he (Quinn) chooses to introduce it (eliminating the legislative exemption) as a separate bill, I would be more than happy to support it,” Taylor said.
Efforts Tuesday to reach Quinn, a former board chairman of the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, were unsuccessful.
The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C., and several other groups recently ranked South Carolina as the worst state in the nation in terms of access to public information.
Taylor’s initial bill was prefiled in December 2010 but didn't move out of the House Judiciary Committee last year. It passed the House in April on a 101-1 vote after Quinn's amendment was added. But it languished in the Senate over the next month and died on the Senate floor in the waning days of the regular legislative session after Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, used a procedural move to place it on the contested calendar, which put it at the bottom of the debate list.
Taylor’s bill that he prefiled Tuesday (the next regular legislative session starts Jan. 8) would allow individuals who claim that public bodies violated FOIA response deadlines to ask county magistrates to enforce the law. A magistrate could hold a public body or public official in civil contempt for violating a court order, which could result in fines.
The earlier bill did not include that provision.
Taylor told The Nerve he believes that allowing complaints to be filed in magistrate courts instead of higher-level circuit courts would speed up the legal process and eliminate the need for individuals to hire attorneys to present their cases.
Other key provisions of Taylor's bill would:
Cut the length of time to seven calendar days from 15 business days for a public body to initially notify a person whether the open-records request can be met. The earlier bill would have cut the time to 15 calendar days from 15 business days;
Generally require that records be furnished, if requests are approved, no later than 30 days from the date of the requests. Currently, there is no deadline for agencies to provide records, except in certain limited circumstances, such as in-person requests for a public body's meeting minutes for the proceeding six months;
Ban government agencies from charging fees for staff time spent complying with requests;
Prohibit agencies from charging for documents that are available in digital formats; and
Increase criminal fines for violations to $500 from $100 for a first violation, $1,000 from $200 for a second violation, and $1,500 from $300 for a third violation. Criminal charges, however, are rarely issued in FOIA cases.
“This legislation monumentally strengthens South Carolina’s open-government law by not allowing government officials to hit FOIA requestors with large, punitive research and copying fees which have the practical effect of stymieing transparency,” Taylor said in a prepared statement Tuesday.
In the same statement, Jay Bender, an attorney for the South Carolina Press Association, predicted that in response to Taylor’s latest bill, “several government-funded special interest groups will complain about the cost of making public records public.”
“That argument is fraudulent,” said Bender, who also teaches media law at the University of South Carolina. “If the General Assembly has found, as it has, that it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner, it is incumbent on public bodies to anticipate requests for records and budget and staff for a timely response. That is the price of democracy.”
Bill Rogers, the Press Association’s executive director, said in the prepared statement that Taylor's latest bill would strengthen current law.
“A major weakness in our law is enforcement, and this change would make it much easier for a citizen to get a public record without the expense of hiring a lawyer," he said. "The bill will also prohibit the exorbitant fees some agencies charge for copies of public records.”
The Nerve, through the South Carolina Policy Council, is an associate member of the Press Association.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.