Advocates say FOIA reform badly needed, but others say bill needs changes
COLUMBIA — South Carolina residents who say they have faced great difficulty in obtaining public information from government bodies are urging state representatives to approve a measure that would reform the state’s open-records law.
The bill by Aiken GOP Rep. Bill Taylor would force bodies such as state agencies and local school boards to respond more quickly to requests for public information, and restrict what those bodies can charge for the information.
Representatives of local governments and school boards argue that the bill is unreasonable.
Taylor said his proposal is meant to provide residents access to information, not make governmental bodies happy.
Susan Herdina, an attorney for the city of Charleston, told a House panel weighing the measure for a second time Thursday that the S.C. Freedom of Information Act has become a mechanism that is exploited by private interests.
That’s not what the information law was intended to do, which was to help average residents, she said.
As examples, Herdina cited private attorneys filing records requests with the city to try to get information to help their cases, and an out-of-state corporation that wanted to know which city vendors had received checks of $10,000 or more that had not been cashed.
The latter request was part of an effort by the company to make money, she said.
Herdina said Charleston taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for such requests.
As written, Taylor’s bill would not allow public bodies to charge for staff time used to compile responses to records requests.
But at the outset of Thursday’s hearing, Taylor proposed an amendment that would allow the bodies to charge a set amount for staff time beyond five hours. That amendment did not receive a vote because testimony took up the entire hearing.
Herdina said the real problem with the open-records law is not costs but that it doesn’t do enough to punish uncooperative public bodies.
“The remedy is looking at penalties, not punishing public bodies by taking taxpayer resources and putting it to the interest of private interests,” Herdina said.
Jody Hamm, a retiree who fulfilled FOIA requests at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for 15 years, warned state representatives that making records requests free would result in more frivolous inquiries and wasted tax dollars.
Taylor said his amendment addresses those issues, because most requests from residents can be completed within the five-hour threshold in which no staff time cost can be assessed.
And the same amendment would create an office of FOIA review within the administrative law court to handle disputes related to requests.
In addition, public bodies could file a request for a hearing with that office to seek relief from an unreasonable request, Taylor said.
Taylor introduced a similar bill last year that passed the House but died in the Senate.
Alberta Wasden of Wagener was among the residents advocating for Taylor’s bill Thursday.
She said the town of Swansea wanted to charge her $10,000 for town budget records and other documents, and claimed town officials have tried to intimidate her.
“Citizens, good or bad, have the right to government information,” Wasden said. “I don’t understand if they’re working off someone else’s money, which is mine, that they think they don’t have to provide information.”
Wasden said Taylor’s bill is so important to her that she came to Columbia Thursday even though her husband died of a heart attack on Tuesday.
“Public officials need to be held accountable,” she said.