Hilton Head businessman wins right to town records at less cost

dburley@islandpacket.comApril 9, 2014 

FILE: Longtime Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce critic Skip Hoagland, standing, on Sept. 25, 2013.

TOM BARTON — Staff photo

A Hilton Head Island businessman has gained ground in his effort to obtain records he hopes will provide details on the relationship between Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and the town.

Circuit Judge Ernest Kinard ruled Tuesday that the town cannot charge Skip Hoagland for the time town staff will spend to comply with a subpoena Hoagland filed seeking the documents.

Town officials have said it would cost about $6,100 to produce about 4,800 pages of documents, including meeting minutes, accounting details, spending records and contract bids.

The ruling means Hoagland only has to pay the cost of making copies, which "cuts costs significantly," according to Hoagland's attorney, Micah Leddy.

Leddy said the judge made "the right application of the rule" because under state law, documents requested for inspection with a subpoena must be produced at no cost.

"It's not like this was the first time someone involved in litigation found that it takes time for them to be involved," he said.

Hoagland has 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.

Town officials argued they were 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.

If it's something that is easily accessible, "then no, we won't charge," town manager Steve Riley said. "But when it's this detailed, requiring years of records, then yes."

Hoagland filed the subpoena in June 2013 after being told by the town that his Freedom of Information Act request would cost $13,000 to collect 11 years' worth of records.

The town said it would take at least five staffers nearly 400 hours to comply with the records request. The cost for those employees' time ranged from $22 an hour for low-level staffers to $51 an hour for senior administrators. Copying charges accrue separately at 10 cents a page.

Changing his strategy, Hoagland filed the subpoena asking the town to turn over many of the documents sought under previous public-records requests. The town estimated it would take 219 staff hours and cost $6,067 to fulfill it.

Hoagland wants the documents for a lawsuit he filed against the chamber in January 2013.

That suit says that because the chamber receives public money -- accommodations tax dollars -- 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 some financial documents available on its website.

Chamber spokeswoman Charlie Clark declined to comment on Tuesday's ruling.

The town is not named as a party in the lawsuit, but was brought in when Hoagland filed the subpoena.

Because of this, staff attorney Brian Hulbert said the town shouldn't be on the hook for the cost.

"We are making the public pay for this," he said.

Leddy, Hoagland's attorney, said he and his client will look at the subpoenaed material before deciding on the next step in the chamber lawsuit. The case is pending, according to Beaufort County court records.

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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