COLUMBIA — A bill pre-filed this week in the S.C. House of Representatives would amend South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act to make government much more transparent and responsive.
This is the second attempt by Rep. Bill Taylor (R-Aiken) to reform the FOIA. Last spring his similar bill won approval in the House 101-1, but stalled in the State Senate in the final days of the legislative session.
“This is about opening up government to the citizens who pay for it; they have a right to know what their government is doing,” said Taylor.
Loopholes in the current FOIA allows state agencies, school districts, towns, cities and other government entities to drag their feet on requests, sometimes for months on end.
“A law that is not enforceable is not a law at all,” said Rep. Taylor. “There is additional teeth in the bill so if citizens seeking information from government feel they are getting stonewalled they can seek immediate relief in Magistrate’s Court rather than waiting many months or more to have their grievances heard in Circuit Court,” Taylor said. “Magistrates would be able to order the government unit to comply and would be able to fine those responsible for not complying with the FOIA to be in civil contempt.”
Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, lauded the bill for adding considerable heft to the FOIA. “A major weakness in our law is enforcement, and this change would make it much easier for a citizen to get a public record without the expense of hiring a lawyer,” he said. “The bill will also prohibit the exorbitant fees some agencies charge for copies of public records.”
The key provisions of H. 3163 would:
• Cut the length of time from 15 calendar days to 7 days to initially notify a person if their FOI request can be met.
• Cut compliance time from 30 business days to 30 calendar days.
• Prohibit state and local entities from charging fees for staff time spent complying with FOIA requests.
• Allow state and local government entities to charge only prevailing commercial rates for copying records.
• Disallow charging for documents available in digital format.
• Increase fines for FOIA violations from $100 to $500 (1st violation), $200 to $1,000 (2nd violation) and $300 to $1,500 (3rd violation).
• Allow for Magistrates to provide immediate legal relief and enforcement who could hold individuals in government in civil contempt for failing to comply with the FOIA requests.
“This legislation monumentally strengthens South Carolina’s open-government law by not allowing government officials to hit FOIA requestors with large, punitive research and copying fees which have the practical effect of stymieing transparency,” said Rep. Taylor.
USC law professor and FOIA expert Jay Bender agrees.
“In response to this legislation several government-funded special interest groups will complain about the cost of making public records public. That argument is fraudulent,” Bender said. “If the General Assembly has found, as it has, that it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner, it is incumbent on public bodies to anticipate requests for records and budget and staff for a timely response. That is the price of democracy.”