Hilton Head: Document request to cost up to $13K

cconley@islandpacket.comAugust 3, 2013 

The Town of Hilton Head Island says it will cost as much as $13,000 to produce a decade's worth of documents and emails sought under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. A scaled-back request ordered under subpoena will cost about $6,100, the town says.

That price is unreasonable, argues attorney Dean Bell, who wants the documents for a lawsuit his client Skip Hoagland has filed against the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.

He suggested the town inflated the price to keep the public from seeing the documents, which are related to its accommodations tax contributions to the chamber.

"This is forcing my client to incur additional costs (to get) a response to a subpoena. It's also costing the town money because they have to fight me to determine if it has to respond," Bell said.

Town officials say they're only trying to cover the cost of fulfilling the request, which will require multiple staffers to sift through thousands of documents in several databases and archives.

"There is not a disagreement about producing the documents; there is a disagreement about whether he has to pay for the cost of producing those documents," Hilton Head staff attorney Brian Hulbert said.

"We are not a party to the lawsuit, so why should taxpayers pay to produce documents for litigation we are not involved in?"

THE LAWSUIT

Hoagland, a Hilton Head businessman, filed the lawsuit in January hoping to compel the chamber to hand over invoices, contracts, checks and other financial information. The suit says that because the chamber accepts public money in the form of accommodations tax grants, it is a public body and must comply with public-records requests.

The chamber counters that it follows all state disclosure laws and already has made documents available on its website. It believes that it is not a public body and is not subject to freedom of information rules.

The S.C. Supreme Court has denied the chamber's request to hear the case immediately and bypass a potentially protracted trial and appeals process.

The case is now in the discovery phase, Bell said.

A chamber spokeswoman said it has had no contact with the town related to the records request and declined to comment further.

THE RECORDS REQUESTS

Bell filed a public-records request in March seeking thousands of documents and emails dating to 2002. The request sought meeting minutes, accounting details, spending records, contract bids and other records related to the town's relationship with the chamber.

The request was later scaled back to records from 2007 to 2012 after the town said it would cost $13,322 to collect 11 years' worth of records. The cost for six years was about $10,000, according to emails between the town and Bell.

The S.C. Freedom of Information Act requires governments to make almost all documents available for review. It also allows them to charge for the time it takes to gather those documents, but there are limits.

"The public body may establish and collect fees not to exceed the actual cost of searching for or making copies of records," the law says. "Fees charged by a public body must be uniform for copies of the same record or document."

However, it also says documents must be provided at "the lowest possible cost to the person requesting the records."The town enclosed several forms defending those costs. For instance, the town said it would take at least five staffers nearly 400 hours to comply with the records request covering 2002 to 2013. The cost for those employees' time ranges from $22 an hour for low-level staffers to $51 an hour for senior administrators. Copying charges accrue separately at 10 cents a page.

On June 27, Bell changed his strategy, filing a subpoena asking the town to turn over many of the same documents sought under previous public-records requests. The town estimated it would take 219 staff hours and cost $6,067 to fulfill the subpoena, which would include about 4,800 pages. But Bell contends that the town can't charge for the subpoenaed documents because under state law, documents requested with a subpoena must be produced at no cost. The town disagrees.

The subpoena also sought emails from Mayor Drew Laughlin's town email address. In a July 5 letter to Bell, Hulbert said the $6,067 fee to comply with the subpoena did not cover Laughlin's costs. The letter says Laughlin bills at $300 an hour.

Attempts to reach Laughlin, who was on vacation this week, according to his secretary, were unsuccessful. A message on his home answering machine was not returned Friday afternoon.

The town said in the July 5 letter that it would not turn over the documents without a deposit toward the $6,067 fee or a court order.

Bell's subpoena of the records is likely headed for court, where Bell says the town will have to justify its costs.

"I don't know if it is done as an attempt to deter someone from seeking documents from the town, because the town is seeking protections that other third-party (subpoena recipients) might not otherwise normally get," Bell said.

The town says it's ready to hand over the documents, but only if it will be paid for employees' time. It also says that most records requests from residents or the media are provided at no cost.

Hulbert said this is "the most voluminous" request for documents the town has received in his eight years working there. It wasn't clear if the town's position would be different had it been named in the lawsuit. Hulbert declined to discuss hypothetical situations.

"The town is willing and able and ready to make those records available, but there is going to be a significant amount of economic impact to the town, as far as labor," he said.

With no resolution in sight, the issue appears headed for court, where a Beaufort County judge likely will decide whether the town's fees for documents sought by subpoena are reasonable.

Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.

Related content:

Supreme Court denies chamber's request, May 6, 2013

Hilton Head-Bluffton Chamber wants S.C. Supreme Court to decide Hoagland lawsuit, Feb. 26, 2013

Hoagland sues Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber over financial records, Jan. 15, 2013

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