Close gaping loopholes in state FOIA

info@islandpacket.comDecember 27, 2012 

Legislators from Beaufort County are right to support an effort to improve the state's Freedom of Information Act.

A bill filed last week for the legislative session that begins in January would force public agencies to be more responsive to the public, and to be held accountable for breaking the law.

"I'm in favor of anything that makes it easier for citizens to access information," said Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort.

"There should be more transparency in government, period," said Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island.

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

Davis deserves support in pushing for the bill, filed by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, to make lawmakers subject to the law like every other public official and public body in the state. That exemption -- both in current law and in the proposed changes -- is illogical and an affront to the public. The legislature is not a private club.

The bill would:

  • Force government officials to respond more quickly to requests for public documents made by the public.

  • Prohibit government officials from charging for staff time spent complying with records requests, as well as for documents available digitally. It would also prohibit governments from charging more than prevailing commercial rates for copying records. These are shameful tactics used to avoid the release of public information, and it must be stopped.

  • Increase fines for violating the FOIA -- up to $1,500 for a third violation -- and allow magistrates to hold individuals in government in civil contempt for failing to comply with FOIA requests. Current law provides for no appeal process other than filing a civil lawsuit at one's own expense. We have learned the hard way that the law needs teeth because it is constantly being broken in communities around the state.

  • A similar bill passed through the House during this year's legislative session, but stalled in the Senate. It is important that it not fail again, and a united Beaufort County legislative delegation can help ensure its passage.

    The bill closes loopholes that, unfortunately, are commonly used by public agencies to frustrate open government. The loopholes should be closed, and the legislature should be forced to abide by the same standard of openness as local agencies.

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