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South Carolina law was aimed at dropping price of public records. But is it paying off?

Gov. Henry McMaster signs FOIA bill (copy)

Gov. Henry McMaster holds a ceremonial bill-signing in May for a law reforming the state's Freedom of Information Act. File/Maya T. Prabhu/Staff

Freedom isn’t free, especially when it comes to getting information from governments in South Carolina.

And the cost of public documents appears to remain hefty under the state’s new Freedom of Information Act —despite a revision touted as a way to keep fees in check, some observers said.

Some price tags are on the rise as public entities send out bills for retrieving and redacting documents sought by citizens who hope to peek at government activity that might otherwise stay secret.

The new law, which went into effect last year, for the first time specifically allows governments to charge for redaction — the removal of private details in otherwise public records.

The cost of copying records also remains high at some entities despite FOIA changes that call for such charges to mirror commercial rates.

Many clerks of court — in Charleston, Richland and Horry counties, for example — charge 50 cents per black-and-white page, up to five times the bill citizens would see in private printing shops. But at least one clerk said the charge depends on how a citizen asks for the records.

Some major governments also have not posted their fees online, another requirement of the law.

During this Sunshine Week, a nationwide celebration of open-records laws and government transparency, some observers see cost as one of the most pressing issues for the freedom of information.

Bill Fox, a former newspaper managing editor, helped start the Columbia-based nonprofit Public Access to Public Records, or PAPR, to inject financial resources into efforts to scoop up costly information. His group recently shelled out more than $4,000 for reports that shed light on the spending habits of 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, who had spent taxpayer dollars for his own brother to deejay at an office Christmas party.

"One of the biggest problems ... is the exorbitant cost that effectively blocks access to public records for most people who cannot afford it," Fox said. "It’s clearly the first hurdle to get over."

Proponents largely lauded the law's changes, passed by the Legislature in May, that sped up the process for receiving records and challenging a government's handling of requests.

But lawmakers also tacked on provisions allowing governments to charge reasonable fees for "the actual cost of the search, retrieval and redaction of records." The old law did not specifically allow for redaction costs, said Jay Bender, a Columbia press attorney who has often represented The Post and Courier.

"Elected people think they know best about what the public should know,” Bender said. "People who don’t like to give up information will use redaction costs to deter citizens."

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, helped push for the reform. Rogers said the measure improved the painstaking open-records process and that he has heard no negative feedback about costs.

But, Rogers said, he is "unhappy" with the addition of redaction fees.

Allowing governments to effectively block access through such charges "wasn't the intent of the law," Rogers said. "It was to get more information to the public."

Some entities are not posting their fees online either, as the law requires.

That was the case in Charleston, which has a price list but had not posted it on the city's website. The Post and Courier's inquiry into the issue, city spokesman Jack O'Toole said, hastened the legal department's effort to get the fees posted online.

O'Toole noted, though, the charges are typically waived for FOIA requests that serve a broad public interest.

Among arms of the government that have posted their charges on the internet, courts have some of the highest fees for photo copies.

The new law says the cost for public records "may not exceed the prevailing commercial rate."

Office Depot on Columbia's Harden Street charges 12 cents a page for do-it-yourself copying, but for court documents at the Richland County clerk a few miles away, it's 50 cents.

The same fee is charged in Charleston County, though a UPS Store a few blocks away on Market Street charges 10 cents.

In Greenville County, the court charges 25 cents a page, the clerk's website says.

Municipal governments vary in their fees for black-and-white copies. Columbia charges 30 cents while Myrtle Beach charges 10 cents.

State Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro, said the law’s purpose was to standardize and rein in costs.

“The whole point was to make it consistent across the board," she said, "so you don’t have one government entity charging X amount of dollars and one charging something else.”

Charleston County Clerk of Court Julie Armstrong said in an email that the 50-cent charge "simply reimburses the county for the paper, toner, etc." But people who make requests citing the FOIA would be charged the commercial rate, she said. That’s listed on the county website as 11 cents per page.

Armstrong touted her office's unique effort to upload many documents, particularly lawsuits in civil court, to the court system's website, where they are free. One person who had made a FOIA request recently faced hundreds of dollars in fees for a copy of a court file; instead, the person downloaded the file free of charge, Armstrong said.

"Where there is an opportunity for the individual to not pay anything," she said, "we point it out."

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the Quick Response Team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.

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