Beaufort County legislators support renewed effort to reform FOIA

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comDecember 21, 2012 

Beaufort County legislators pledged Wednesday to support a bill in the S.C. House of Representatives intended to speed government response to requests for information.

Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, filed a bill Tuesday that would close loopholes in the state's Freedom of Information Act allowing S.C. agencies, school districts, towns and cities to drag their feet filling records requests.

"This is about opening up government to the citizens who pay for it; they have a right to know what their government is doing," Taylor said in a news release.

Taylor authored a similar bill during the legislative session that ended in July. The bill won approval in the House 101-1 but stalled in the State Senate in the final days of the session.

Every House member of the Beaufort County delegation voted for the bill, except Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island, who missed the vote while preparing for a conference committee meeting.

Patrick, who is on the House Republican Caucus Ethics Reform Study Committee also looking at FOIA issues, said he would have voted for the bill and plans to co-sponsor the legislation with Taylor.

"There should be more transparency in government, period," Patrick said Wednesday.

Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, also lauded the bill."I'm in favor of anything that makes it easier for citizens to access information," Erickson said, adding the law needs stiffer penalties for those who "misuse the system."

The bill (H. 3163) would:

  • Cut the time government officials have to notify someone whether a request can be met from 15 to seven calendar days, and time to comply with requests from 30 business days to 30 calendar days.

  • Prohibit state and local officials from charging for staff time spent complying with records requests, as well for documents available digitally.

  • Prevent officials from charging more than prevailing commercial rates for copying records.

  • Increase fines for violating the FOIA law from $100 to $500 for a first violation; $200 to $1,000 for a second violation; and $300 to $1,500 for a third violation.

  • Allow magistrates to hold individuals in government in civil contempt for failing to comply with the FOIA requests.

  • Currently, the law provides no appeal process -- other than filing a civil lawsuit at one's own expense -- if state or local agencies deny access to records. Public bodies also can charge excessive fees for gathering information, making it too expensive for the public to get information, according to Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association.

    Lawmakers are also exempt from following the law. Taylor's bill would not alter that exemption.

    However, Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he will push to eliminate that exemption, as well as require lawmaker to disclose all their sources of personal income.

    "Lawmakers are public servants, and anything and everything they do in that capacity ought to be readily, quickly and inexpensively available to the people for review," Davis said.

    Political fireworks erupted last legislative session after Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, added an amendment that would have required lawmakers to share their correspondence and documents with the public. But some lawmakers and state agencies objected. That opposition, along with Senate jockeying, killed the effort.

    Davis and Rogers are hopeful S.C. resident will realize the shortcomings of the current law and demand changes this go-around.

    "The people are sick and tired of public officials conducting business under a cloak of secrecy," Davis said.

    Related content

    1. SC justices hear arguments in freedom of information dispute: Oct. 3, 2012
    2. County attorney defends Freedom of Information decision: May 28, 2011

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