Lawmakers should show some courage on FOIA

info@islandpacket.comMarch 15, 2013 

South Carolina lawmakers have a disturbing propensity to take a straightforward, common-sense proposal and needlessly complicate it so that it sinks of its own weight.

So it is with a bill to bring much-needed improvements to the state's open records law. As we mark Sunshine Week, an annual event to shed light on open government issues, what is happening in the General Assembly casts a long shadow.

The measure, introduced for a second time by state Rep. Bill Taylor of Aiken, would:

  • Shorten from 15 working days to 10 the time a government entity has to respond to a request.

  • Allow no more than 30 days to fulfill that request, with 45 days allowed for documents that are more than 2 years old.

  • Limit charges for copying documents to the prevailing commercial rate, limit what is charged for staff time to retrieve documents and require no charge for documents stored or transmitted electronically. The public would be told upfront and publicly what the cost would be.

  • Increase fines for those found guilty of a misdemeanor for willfully violating the law. A first offense would result in a $500 fine or 30 days in jail.

  • It also would set up an Office of Freedom of Information Act Review in the Administrative Law Court, so that refusals to release information can be appealed without having to go to the trouble and expense of Circuit Court.

    But a move to remove lawmakers' exemption from the law is hurting its chances to become law. That's unfortunate because there is no good reason that they should not have to follow the same rules as every other public official in the state, including the governor.

    Supporters of the other changes worry that this "poison pill" will sink the bill. Rep. Weston Newton of Bluffton has introduced a bill to limit its impact. His bill would exempt from disclosure memoranda, working papers and correspondence related to a bill not yet introduced to a committee or the General Assembly. It also would exempt written or electronic correspondence sent to a lawmaker by a constituent.

    People corresponding with public officials about public matters should not have an expectation of privacy. And how we get to a bill can matter as much as the final product.

    We understand and appreciate that Newton's bill might help get into law the other changes, but it doesn't change the fact that lawmakers should not enjoy special privileges when it comes to open government. They do so now only because they write the laws.

    Another hurdle thrown up recently is a $1 million estimate of the cost to store state legislator's records if they vote open their papers to public scrutiny. Even if accurate, it's a red herring. It's a relatively small price to pay for a sea change in how lawmakers conduct themselves and in the public's access to information.

    Lawmakers should have the backbone to live by their "transparent government" pledge instead of paying lip service to it.

    More courage on this subject would be a welcome change.

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