The primary missing ingredient in government today is public trust.
Recently enacted improvements to the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act should help.
We are proud and grateful that state Rep. Weston Newton, a Republican from Bluffton and former 10-year chairman of the Beaufort County Council, played a major role in making this happen.
The result should help the public in terms of time, money and accountability.
It should reduce the number of egregious acts by local governments to hide public information from the public.
Newton has worked on the topic since voters sent him to Columbia in 2013, alongside Aiken Republican Bill Taylor, with help in the Senate from Chip Campsen, a Charleston Republican whose district reaches into Beaufort County.
Part of the process was hearing from the public. One thing that stands out in Newton’s mind is the woman who said a local government was going to charge her $11,000 to get the same package of material she saw in an elected leader’s hands.
So here’s what was done about it:
Cost: Government agencies can charge no more than the prevailing commercial rate for producing copies. It’s absurd that this has to be written into to law, but it does and it shows why there is lost public trust in government.
Time: Major improvements here. The amount of time an agency has to respond to a request for public information was reduced from 15 to 10 days. But, more importantly, the law includes for the first time a deadline (30 days) for the agency to actually turn over the information. Also, the Circuit Court now must schedule a hearing within 10 days when an FOIA suit is filed.
Accountability: A civil fine of $500, plus attorneys fees, for violators was added to give some teeth to the long-running problem of enforcing the FOIA. That is an improvement over a criminal charge in the act that Newton said has never been enforced or even prosecuted because it has the unreasonable requirement of proving that a government official (which one would it be for a school district, for example) deliberately withheld public information with criminal intent.
These improvements should make government more accountable to the people, which leads to transparency, and perhaps greater public trust and involvement.
But there is more to do.
Newton has pushed to eliminate the FOIA exemption granted to the legislature. It’s an absurd notion that county councils, mayors and governors must abide by the law, but the legislature does not.
Also, it is a shame that the bill did not include a widely accepted method of bringing greater accountability to governments and more power to the people by adding an FOIA hearing officer. This would make it cheaper and easier for a citizen to challenge the government. And it would start building a body of opinions that could influence future decisions that violate the FOIA. As Newton said, there is no reason a citizen should have to bear the potentially staggering expense of challenging an FOIA violation. And there’s no need to start each challenge from scratch when previous cases could be reviewed from what might look like a people’s court.
For democracy to work, governments must be beholden to the people. These long-fought improvements to the Freedom of Information Act are a good step toward making it happen.