FOIA change may be in the works

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Courtesy of the S.C. Press Association

A bill recently pre-filed in the S.C. House of Representatives would amend the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to make government much more transparent and responsive.

 This is the second attempt by Rep. Bill Taylor (R-Aiken) to reform the FOIA. 

Last spring his similar bill won approval in the House by a 101-1 vote, but stalled in the State Senate in the final days of the legislative session.

 “This is about opening up government to the citizens who pay for it; they have a right to know what their government is doing,” Taylor said.

Loopholes in the current FOIA allows state agencies, school districts, towns, cities and other government entities to drag their feet on requests, sometimes for months on end.

“A law that is not enforceable is not a law at all,” Taylor said. “There is additional teeth in the bill so if citizens seeking information from government feel they are getting stonewalled they can seek immediate relief in magistrate’s court rather than waiting many months or more to have their grievances heard in circuit court.

“Magistrates would be able to order the government unit to comply and would be able to fine those responsible for not complying with the FOIA to be in civil contempt,” he said.

 Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, lauded the bill for adding considerable heft to the FOIA. 

“A major weakness in our law is enforcement, and this change would make it much easier for a citizen to get a public record without the expense of hiring a lawyer,” he said. “The bill will also prohibit the exorbitant fees some agencies charge for copies of public records.”

About H.3163

The key provisions of H. 3163 would:

• Cut the length of time from 15 calendar days to seven days to initially notify a person if their FOI request can be met

• Cut the time to comply with an FOIA request from 30 business days to 30 calendar days

• Prohibit state and local entities from charging fees for staff time spent complying with FOIA requests

• Allow state and local government entities to charge only prevailing commercial rates for copying records

• Disallow charging for documents available in digital format

• Increase fines for FOIA violations from $100 to $500 (first violation); $200 to $1,000 (second violation), and $300 to $1,500 (third violation)

u Allow for magistrates to provide immediate legal relief and enforcement, who could hold individuals in government in civil contempt for failing to comply with the FOIA requests.

“This legislation monumentally strengthens South Carolina’s open-government law by not allowing government officials to hit FOIA requestors with large, punitive research and copying fees, which have the practical effect of stymieing transparency,” Taylor said.

FOIA expert Jay Bender, a University of South Carolina law professor, agrees. 

“In response to this legislation, several government-funded special interest groups will complain about the cost of making public records public,” Bender said. “That argument is fraudulent. If the General Assembly has found, as it has, that it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner, it is incumbent on public bodies to anticipate requests for records and budget and staff for a timely response. 

“That is the price of democracy,” Bender said.

Rogers said public support is needed to move this bill forward.  

“Passage of this important legislation needs to be a grassroots effort. Every citizen should demand open and transparent government,” he said.