Swansea Continues to Drag Feet on FOIA Request

October 14, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveMore than two months after Swansea businesswoman Alberta Wasden filed an S.C. Freedom of Information Act request in a bid to learn how the town of 500 racked up more than $470,000 in debt, she’s no closer to an answer.

Wasden’s request, which sought town financial statements, meeting minutes and ordinances, was met with a bill from town officials for nearly $10,000.

She met with Mayor Ray Spires and town attorney Sidney J. Evering recently and was told that her quest for answers is only hurting the town.

“I was told that if I would back off and give the mayor time to work for the town, it would be a plus for the town because the current negativity is hurting everyone,” Wasden said. “They were very upfront: ‘Back off and leave the mayor alone.’”

Things were particularly contentious at a Swansea Town Council meeting earlier this week.

Wasden, during the public forum portion of the meeting, criticized the town’s accounting, which irked councilwoman Linda Butler.

“One of the council members could not stand it because I said they couldn’t handle their accounting,” Wasden said. “Linda said that wasn’t the case, that the town had great accounting. “I said that’s not my opinion; that was the opinion of your accounting firm.”

Spires then jumped in and said the town has come a long way in its record keeping and has seen a great improvement in its accounting practices.

“I said to him, ‘Have you read your audit?’” Wasden said. “He said, ‘It’s not finished yet.’”

“Spires added that the town didn’t her assistance with its budget. Swansea did its budget its way and I could do mine my way, he said,” Wasden added.

Neither Butler nor Spires responded to interview requests from The Nerve.

Wasden filed her FOIA request in late July, seeking data on business licenses and paperwork related to grants and federal funding to Swansea, in addition to town financial data, meeting minutes and ordinances.

Her request dates back as far as 2004 for some material, and to 2008 for other information.

Wasden, a citizen reporter for The Nerve, was greeted with a bill for $9,996.25.

The town wrote that it based its figure on a 10-cents per-page copying fee and a per-hour cost of $21.85 for researching and copying materials. Swansea officials requested that Wasden provide a deposit of $4,916.25 before it would begin compiling the information requested.

Officials have said they could reduce the cost if Wasden were willing to narrow the scope of her request. While Wasden has since pared back her request, she believes that she is only asking for basic information that should be available to all residents.

Wasden and Doris Simmons, another citizen reporter for The Nerve, met with Swansea Town Councilman Ben Simons last week to discuss the matter.

While Simons, who joined the Town Council in February after a special election was held, said that Wasden’s request was broad in scope and size, and might have been better if it had been broken down some, he agreed that town information is not easy for citizens to find.

“I plan to make a request for the town to be more transparent in its dealings,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to get a lot of this information online before too long, which should make it easier for everyone to view.”

Wasden has said she believes someone in the town needs to be held accountable for the fact that because Swansea officials failed to forward the state its share of fines imposed in municipal court from 2004 through 2007 – mainly for traffic violations – the community ended up owing $473,251 to the state.

Instead, that money paid salaries of the 10-member town staff and unspecified bills.

Spires and other town leaders have blamed the debt on bad advice, but an audit of town finances showed that Spires spent the money without authorization from the Town Council.

While South Carolina law allows a public body to collect fees for searching for and making copies of records, it also states that fees must be charged at the lowest possible cost to the person requesting the records.

In addition, state law says that information may be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge when a public body determines it is in the public interest because the information can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public.

Wasden believes that charging $21.85 an hour for researching and copying information violates the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Town officials are asking Wasden to pay an estimated $6,622 alone for the town’s financial statements and meeting minutes for the period 2005-2010, which they estimate at 40,000 pages.

Officials are asking for $937 from Wasden for copying and providing the town’s codes and ordinances.

Wasden has also requested copies of business licenses issued by the town between March 1, 2008, and July 25, 2010. Officials responded that it would cost about $190 for the approximately 800 pages of information on business licenses.

Wasden has questioned why there would be 800 pages of business licenses compiled in a town of approximately 500 residents during the past two-plus years.

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