Dont let politics kill a bill to improve South Carolinians access to public information
There is nothing not to like about a bill that would improve South Carolinians’ access to information the public has a right to know. But there is a good chance it will fail to win approval in the state Senate.
The hang-up is an amendment that would allow people to see legislative correspondence and papers. The House of Representatives approved the bill, with the amendment. But senators are balking at the amendment.
That’s unfortunate. The governor’s correspondence already must be made available under law.
Why shouldn’t the Legislature’s? Don’t people need to know what all of their elected officials are saying and what kind of deals they are making?
However, given the dismal prospect of passage, the Senate should kill the amendment and take it up at another time. Then it should pass the law to put a stop to practices that have limited people’s access to public information.
The legislation makes records more available to people by prohibiting public agencies from charging more than the fair market rate for copies of public documents; prohibiting any charge for records stored electronically; and requiring that documents are handed over no more than 30 days after requested.
One municipality in the state charged $5 a page for copies of police records, and some agencies have taken months to provide requested information. We can only conclude that the agencies want to make it difficult for people to see what is in their records. And that, of course, is even more reason for people to see them.
Crime reports might upset people, but police are obligated to make that information available to the public so that they can lock their doors or steer clear of a problem nightclub. Getting that information shouldn’t be too expensive for people to pay, and shouldn’t be so slow in its delivery that it does no good.
The amendment? Legislators, like other public officials and agencies, ought to be accountable to the public. That means people should have a way to see what they are doing and with whom they are dealing. Voters can make informed choices on Election Day only if they know what really is going on in government.
Some senators are concerned that FOIA requests would increase and that they would need to take on additional staff to fill them. They also are concerned that constituents would not communicate with legislators for fear that their exchange would become public.
There has been ample time for the law to be adjusted to address their concerns, but there seems to have been no will on the part of the Senate to do so. Their reluctance should signal that there is a need to shine more light on their dealings, and the Legislature should waste no time putting forward a bill that would more fully accomplish that goal.
Meanwhile, the original bill on its own is worthy of Senate approval. An informed citizenry is good for the state. It is only bad for people who want to hide something.
South Carolina law should be adjusted to ensure openness and honesty — two of the building blocks for good government.