By Bill Rogers
It’s been a long time coming, but citizens of South Carolina will soon have faster and cheaper access to public documents.
For seven years, the state legislature has for one reason or the other not passed a Freedom of Information reform bill. They did so on the last day of the session this year, and it offers some real improvements in our state’s open government law.
The House, led by Reps. Weston Newton (of Bluffton) and Bill Taylor, pushed hard for the reform and in the end concurred in a last-minute Senate amendment doing away with establishment of an FOIA hearing officer. But the good of the law far outweighs the loss of easier enforcement.
Perhaps the most meaningful part of the reform deals with response time. The new law changes the amount of time an agency has to respond from 15 days to 10 days. That’s a pretty good compromise. Note that Georgia requires a three-day response, but they have exemptions.
The law also sets up a specific time for an FOI request to be fulfilled. In the past, a few agencies abused the law by dragging out their response for months. Now they have 30 days in most cases.
The law also limits how much an agency can charge for documents. In the past, some charged outrageous amounts to discourage release. Now, they can charge no more than the prevailing commercial rate for producing copies. Agencies may also require up to a 25-percent deposit before beginning a search.
The law encourages electronic transmission of public records and says copy charges may not be made for electronic records. But the agency is not required to create an electronic version when it does not exist.
As to police dashcams, the law specifies that any recording involving an incident involving death, injury, property damage or the use of deadly force must be released. However, it allows police to go before a circuit court judge to argue that withholding the recording is more important than the public interest in disclosure.
Filing an FOI suit has been a slow process, often dragging on for a year or more. The new law requires an initial circuit court hearing be set within 10 days of service of legal papers on the parties involved.
The law augments the criminal violation provision and sets up a civil fine of $500 for arbitrary and capricious violations of the law.
To deal with improper requests, the law allows a public body to request a hearing on requests that are unduly burdensome, overly broad, vague or repetitive.
The law takes effect upon the signature of Gov. Henry McMaster, who supported many of these changes when he worked on the Ethics Reform Study Committee several years ago.
With the removal of the hearing officer, enforcement of the law remains problematic.
But we’ve taken a big step for more transparency in our state.
Bill Rogers is executive director of the S.C. Press Association, an advocate for open government.