COLUMBIA — South Carolina residents told legislators Thursday that a bill strengthening the state's public records law is desperately needed, but advocates for local governments and law enforcement contend the proposal goes too far.
A House panel heard testimony, but took no action, on a bill designed to force public agencies, governments and school districts to respond more quickly to Freedom of Information Act requests and to bar them from charging excessive fees.
“There's a lot of stonewalling out there,” and governments are getting away with it under the current law, said its sponsor, Rep. Bill Taylor. “The spirit of that law has been diverted.”
It's his second attempt at making it easier for residents to access public documents. The House approved a similar bill last year, but it died in the Senate. A major change in his latest proposal is designed to settle disputes quickly and cheaply.
Currently, the only way to force a public body to comply is to sue in circuit court, which means hiring a lawyer and possibly waiting years for a decision. While the law allows offenders to be charged with a misdemeanor, no one's ever been convicted, said Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association.
Taylor's bill would allow appeals to a local magistrate. But under a proposed amendment, the appeal would instead go to the Administrative Law Court, deemed to be a better choice with judges more familiar with public records laws. That amendment will likely be taken up Tuesday, when the subcommittee next meets.
That provision helps both sides, Taylor said, since agencies can also seek relief from “those handful of people who just want to make a nuisance of themselves,” to possibly narrow the scope of a request or dismiss it.
With so many people wanting to testify on the proposal, the panel ran out of time Thursday before needing to be in House chambers.
“I think this is a desperately needed law,” said Alberta Wasden of Wagener.
She said the town of Swansea tried to charge her $9,996 for copies of four years' worth of town budgets and the board minutes from 10 meetings. She ended up paying more than $500 after media reported the charge, she said. She showed a stack of documents representing the town's investigation into her for making the request, which included her bank account statements.
“They're intimidating. They ask, `What do you need the information for?' when it should be a simple matter of printing it out,” said Doris Simmons of Swansea. She said she had to get a sympathetic councilman to sneak her a copy of town ordinances after her requests were repeatedly refused.
Representatives for law enforcement, counties and cities testified they want to be transparent, but argued the quicker turn-around required in the bill and inability to charge administrative fees create an undue burden.
Holly Eskridge, who manages Rock Hill's public records requests, told of a request that took her 45 hours to fulfill. She suggested a defined fee schedule.
Currently, public bodies have 15 business days to respond to a FOIA request, which can include simply acknowledging receipt. The bill would require responding in seven calendar days and actually providing the information within a month – 75 days if the data is more than two years old.
Jarrod Bruder of the officers' group said small police departments often have fewer than 10 people.
“When we have to take time off the road to respond to things in a short amount of time, we're making a choice between public safety and responding to requests,” he said.
Rep. Jenny Horne, the panel's chairwoman, said it's reasonable to change the response time to 10 business days. She'll present that amendment Tuesday.