Lawmakers let down state on FOIA changes

info@islandpacket.comMay 7, 2013 

Disappointing but not surprising is the best way to describe lawmakers' failing -- again -- to make important changes to the state's open records law.

What stalled the bill for a second year in a row was an attempt to make members of the General Assembly subject to the law, just as all other public officials are. The House bill was sent back to the Judiciary Committee, and there it sits.

That's very unfortunate because it would accomplish some good things, including:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Rep. Weston Newton of Bluffton filed a separate bill that would have limited the impact of removing lawmakers' exemption, but it, too, sits in the Judiciary Committee. Even if by some miracle, the bills were to get voted out of the House this session, it would take a two-thirds vote by senators to consider them since the legislature's "cross over" deadline passed last week.

    Newton's 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.

    We understand why he did it, but we don't think it's good law. 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.

    Newton has said he introduced his bill to allow a public hearing and avoid potentially unintended consequences. He also had hoped to see the bills get out of the House before the May 1 deadline. He clearly was overoptimistic on that score.

    Yes, there is next year, but that's what we heard last year when the effort passed the House but failed to get a vote in Senate. Leaders in the House and Senate must make this a priority, or we're going to see another year pass with little to show for lawmakers' pledge to give us "transparent government."

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