A bill that would allow South Carolinians to get copies of public documents faster and less expensively is heading to the full House of Representatives for consideration.
It represents significant progress for open government and would be the first step in improving the state's Freedom of Information Act since 2003.
The bill, H.3235, prohibits public agencies from charging more than the fair market rate for making copies of public documents, prohibits any charge for staff time spent gathering or reproducing the documents, prohibits any charge for records stored electronically and requires that the documents are handed over to the requesting citizen in no more than 30 days.
Compare this to the $5 per page charge one municipality once charged for copies of police records, the thousands of dollars county governments have attempted to charge for researching records related to possibly felonious expenditures of tax dollars, and the months it can take to finally get documents requested under the FOI law.
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One school board is asking more then $500,000 for a citizen to see board emails.
An amendment to the bill would remove the current exemption for legislative papers. The Freedom of Information Committee for the S.C. Press Association and the SCPA membership support removing this legislative exemption, but hope it can be modified to preserve confidentiality of correspondence between a citizen and his or her elected representative. This modification would remove objections to the bill.
South Carolina citizens pay for the work of public agencies through their tax dollars; they shouldn't have to pay ridiculous copying rates and wait for unspecified amounts of time when they need access to public records.
Rep. Bill Taylor of Aiken, who introduced the bill, said his goal is to make it easier to get records and keep agencies from "giving citizens the stiff arm.
"My goal is to ...maybe give the advantage to the real citizens who pay for all this."
Amen, we say. It's long overdue.
If you have ever been denied timely access to a public document or been overcharged, now is the time to speak up. Contact your representative and ask for his or her support for this bill.
Trisha O'Connor is chairwoman of the Freedom of Information Committee of the S.C. Press Association and Media Executive in Residence at Coastal Carolina University. She is a retired executive editor of The Sun News in Myrtle Beach..