There are many good reasons to update South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act and apparently only a single excuse for the failure of the Legislature to have passed it by now. Lawmakers don't want the provisions of the bill to fully cover their own records.
Specifically, legislators don't like the notion that their emails could be disclosed under the FOIA revisions, according to advocates for the bill.
Email is the method that many constituents use to contact their legislators, and many lawmakers want to exempt it to preserve confidentiality.
But personal preference or privilege is just not a good reason for elected officials working in the public arena to grant themselves such an exemption. Legislative emails should no more be exempt than legislative correspondence written on paper.
Moreover, legislators shouldn't attempt to carve out exemptions just for themselves.
As Rep. Chandra Dillard said, "When we pass a bill it's for everybody." And it should apply equally. The Greenville Democrat spoke on the FOIA at a pre-session meeting last month with legislators and members of the media in Columbia.
So did Sen. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland. "There are no teeth to the FOIA law. It is abysmal," said the senator, an attorney with professional experience in navigating the law. "The government does not want to be transparent."
Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, who has led the effort to shepherd FOIA reforms through the Legislature over the last four years, said the bill will establish uniformity in charges to the public, including copying. There have been instances where citizens attempting to ferret out public information have been presented bills for thousands of dollars to make copies.
Indeed, some governments require an FOIA request for the most mundane information - information that should be readily available to the public online. In those instances the FOIA is being used by pettifoggers to thwart the spirit of open government.
The bill also would shorten the time government has to respond to FOIA requests, and would increase the penalties for failing to comply.
Late last year, the FOIA reform bill died in the House after it was amended to bar legislators from keeping secret their working papers and correspondence, including email. Since then, the objections have focused mostly on email.
It's been called a poison bill amendment by some supporters of the FOIA reforms, and, no question, those reforms are needed in any event. But if email is viewed as a public record - and it's hard to see why it wouldn't be - it should be treated as such.
As public officials, legislators should be committed to transparency in government.
To that end, accountability starts with a strong Freedom of Information Act.
One with teeth.
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