COLUMBIA – The South Carolina House approved a bill today strengthening the state’s open records law.
The bill approved 101-1 a bill barring public agencies, governments and school districts from charging excessive fees for public records and requiring them to respond more quickly. It also removes legislators’ exemption from the law.
“The intent is to make documents more easily accessible not costly. It’s as simple as that,” said Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken.
As a former newspaper reporter, TV anchorman and TV news consultant, Taylor said he’s well acquainted with governments’ tactics of delay and excessive charges.
“I’ve always believed this. I believe in transparency and open government,” he said.
His bill limits charges for paper copies to the market rate – basically whatever FedEx or Staples is charging per copy, he said. There can be no charges for information stored or transmitted electronically. And it requires public bodies to either post online or have immediately available, without the requirement of a written request, documents handed out in public meetings over the last six months, as well as meeting minutes.
Too many times the public is hassled about getting public documents, Taylor said, adding that school boards are among the worst offenders. He told of one woman charged $10,000 for her request, and said such ridiculousness is all-too-common.
Taylor dismissed complaints that the ban on administrative fees means agencies will lose time and money in responding, saying that’s the cost of being a good government.
The bill also requires agencies to respond in 15 calendar days, up from 15 working days, and removes their ability to respond by simply saying they got the request. The documents must be provided within 30 days, unless the requested information is more than two years old. The bill provides for 45 days to fulfill those requests, since that may require digging in archives and paper files.
An amendment made by Rep. Rick Quinn during the committee process made legislators’ memos and correspondence subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. It’s unfair for legislators to exempt themselves from the law, he said.
“Find me a state other than South Carolina that has an out-and-out exemption for legislators,” Quinn, R-Lexington, said today.
Some said they fear Quinn’s change will kill the bill’s chances in the Senate.
Taylor said he realizes removing that exemption gives “some people heartburn in the Statehouse.” But he noted the bill’s nearly unanimous vote in the House.
Quinn said Gov. Nikki Haley has threatened to veto the bill if the exemption’s not removed.
Her spokesman took issue with that.
“We don’t threaten vetoes. We work with legislators to prevent them from being necessary,” Rob Godfrey said. “If the Legislature wants to amend FOIA, they should include themselves in it. Otherwise, it’s just window dressing.”
House Minority Leader Harry Ott pointed out that Haley claimed the exemption herself during her 2010 campaign, when asked for copies of emails on her legislative account, before she eventually allowed reporters to view documents in her office.
The bill requires another vote to head to the Senate. The House can still do that perfunctory vote on Tuesday and meet the crossover deadline.
Taylor said he will continue to work to strengthen the law. He said he next wants to give public bodies an incentive to follow it through stiff fines, but realizes he needs to take incremental steps.