Gov. Henry McMaster signs FOIA bill

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

COLUMBIA — As he signed a bill reforming the state's laws granting access to public information, Gov. Henry McMaster acknowledged the effort didn't go far enough.

Specifically, he said the state's legislators should no longer be exempt from public records laws.

"The Freedom of Information Act needs to apply to everyone," McMaster said after a ceremonial bill signing Wednesday. "That includes House members and senators."

McMaster said he still hopes the process for challenging government's response — or lack of response — will move eventually to administrative law court, instead of remaining in circuit court.

"The resolution provided by this reform bill speeds up the process in circuit court, but it's still in circuit court," he said. "It's the cumbersome way to go."

Keeping challenges to FOIA in circuit court — and out of administrative court — was part of a compromise needed to pass the bill this year. On the last day of the session Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro, amended the bill to keep jurisdiction as is, and created a timeline for cases to be heard.

Under the new law, FOIA cases will have to be heard within 10 days of a case being filed, and the case must be settled within six months. 

Bill sponsor Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, said the public's business needs to be done in public.

"Transparency, essentially, is the bedrock to representative government," he said.

Local and state governments currently have roughly 30 days to turn over documents and other records once they are deemed public. However, there's no way to enforce that timeline other than going to court.

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McMaster urged all government agencies to abide by the law, "period. No excuses."

"The people ought to know what's going on in government and why it's going on," he said.

The law also makes it easier for members of the public to obtain dash cam video footage from police vehicles, and it requires police agencies to act within 15 days if they wish to challenge an FOIA request in circuit court. But work remains, McMaster said.

"This reform takes us a long way towards where we want to go," McMaster said." We're not all the way there yet, but we're working on it."

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.