Bills Seek to Boost FOIA, Cut Special Elections

January 28, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveBy Jane Page Thompson
Citizen Reporter

 

In the months leading up to last May’s $236 million Aiken County School Board bond referendum requests for information about the terms of the bond, maintenance budgets and administrative salary expenditures were met with delays.

Only after the special-election vote defeated the referendum did the administration begin to compile some of the requested information.

Two of the individuals seeking information, Sunny and Claude O’Donovan, did not receive all details until their state representative, Tom Young, intervened on their behalf, long after the public vote had taken place.

In fact, since September, Aiken County’s Legislative Delegation has had to formally request, via the Freedom of Information Act, documents and recordings from the school district and have been met with complications and some resistance.

Even a request for an open meeting between the delegation and the school board was postponed and delayed.

USA Today reported on the defeat of the Aiken school bond last year and noted the importance of having strong watch-dog groups willing to get accurate information to the public.

Now, bills filed in the S.C. House by the Aiken County Legislative Delegation would address both the scheduling of special elections and streamline Freedom of Information Act requests.

H. 3235 would amend S.C.’s Freedom of Information Act to limit the amount charged “to current fair market rates or the lowest possible rates, if not free.”

It would also require immediate compliance if the information is designated “public” and would require all requests be fulfilled within 30 days of the date of the request. Rep. Bill Taylor, Republican, filed the bill in a bid to boost government transparency.

“It is not unreasonable to require governmental bodies to make available the requested records immediately, but in no case should it take more than thirty days,” Taylor said.

H. 3235, if passed, would help citizens get records, recordings and documents in time to make logical choices about who they elect and how their government operates, without delays and excessive charges.

The second bill, H. 3186, would require that any school bond referendum or special election to be held on a primary or general election day.

The special election in Aiken cost taxpayers close to $50,000, which is particularly discouraging when the vote could have been added to the primary ballot for about $11,000.

Other South Carolina counties have paid similar amounts to hold special elections. The tactic is to keep voter turnout low so the bond will pass.

“Voters deserve to have their input and taxpayers should not be expected to pay for additional elections,” said delegation Chairman Roland Smith, also a Republican.

Jane Page Thompson is a Citizen Reporter from Aiken.