Little seems reasonable about Hilton Head Island's bill of up to $13,000 to produce public documents.
That's the cost estimate put on a documents request from island businessman Skip Hoagland, who is suing the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. The documents sought are related to the accommodations tax money the town gives the chamber.
Town officials say they're trying to cover the cost of fulfilling the request, which they say will require multiple staffers to sift through thousands of documents in several databases and archives. 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 Dean Bell, Hoagland's attorney.
"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?"
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Hulbert misses a key point about the state's Freedom of Information Act. Anyone at any time can request public records. It doesn't matter whether there is a lawsuit involved. It doesn't matter who is asking, and it doesn't matter why they want the records. The reason for the request shouldn't enter the discussion.
The law also requires "the lowest possible cost to the person requesting the records." The assumption is the public has already paid for these documents by paying for the work that produced them in the first place.
The town's response risks any appearance of objectivity in this case. It raises the troubling question of whether the town is too close to the chamber, particularly given its very good record on Freedom of Information Act issues in the past, and whether it's running interference for the chamber.
It is all the more troubling because it comes on the heels of the town's handling of a request from more than two dozen Sea Pines residents who wanted to raise objections to plans for the Sea Pines Beach Club. On very technical grounds, the town's Board of Zoning Appeals rejected the residents' attempt to appeal the town's decision. The board should have heard them out and provided a forum for town staff to fully explain their decision.
Bell has now filed a subpoena for the documents. The town estimates it would take 219 staff hours and cost $6,067 to fulfill the subpoena, which would include about 4,800 pages. But Bell says 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 issue appears to be headed to court.
The subpoena also seeks emails from Mayor Drew Laughlin's town email account. In a July 5 letter to Bell, Hulbert states that the $6,067 fee to comply with the subpoena did not cover Laughlin's costs. The letter states that Laughlin bills at $300 an hour.
What Laughlin bills as a private attorney should have no bearing on this subpoena. He's certainly not earning $300 an hour as mayor. A town staffer can deal with this request, too. Hulbert's including that information in his response suggests he's trying to dissuade Bell from seeking the emails.
It reminds us of Beaufort County's $33,000 estimate in response to a records request from this newspaper about the county's emergency medical services. The estimate included $27,000 for "potential delayed revenue" because a staff person would be pulled off regular duty -- collecting bills -- to compile the information.
Hilton Head should do all it can to avoid the appearance or reality of playing favorites in this or any other matter.