Strengthen S.C. Freedom of Information Act

January 18, 2014 

While ethics reform, government restructuring and now education are likely to consume much of state lawmakers’ attention during the new legislative session, they also need to find time to address a bill that strengthens the state’s Freedom of Information law.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, won approval in the House, 101-1, in 2012 but stalled in the Senate in the final days of the session. Taylor re-introduced the bill last year, and hopes were high that it would pass.

But at a hearing on the bill in the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, offered an amendment that would have removed the section that exempted legislators from having to comply with the rules. That amounted to a “poison pill,” killing any chance it would pass.

The bill was sent to the House floor in March, but the full House sent it back to the Judiciary Committee, where it still resides. Fortunately, the bill still is active for this session, and we hope lawmakers will resurrect it.

If there is any question that the state needs to beef up its freedom of information law, look to Chester County. The county is embroiled in a costly internal legal battle over who should run the county’s 911 emergency system that has pitted the sheriff’s office against the county council.

With the escalation of the dispute, both now are running separate 911 departments, although only one - the one at the sheriff’s office - is operational. The legal fees associated with the county government and the sheriff’s office embroiled in a lawsuit continue to rise.

County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey and members of the county council have refused to comment on their reasons for wanting to move control of the 911 center from the sheriff’s office. Efforts to get documentation that might provide an explanation have been futile.

Here we have the citizens of Chester County paying for a legal battle over a key public safety service, and the officials elected to represent those citizens refuse to reveal what the argument is all about.

This strikes us as a blatant example of contempt for the people’s right to know what their government is up to and a perfect justification for strengthening the FOI law.

Another example: In 2011, the city of Columbia updated its zoining ordinance governing sexually oriented businesses, such as strip clubs and stores that sell sex toys and X-rated magazines and movies. The new ordinance required that the business be located in industrial areas and increased the distances allowed between adult businesses and schools, churches and residential areas.

The owners of Taboo, the city’s only licensed sex business, sued the city, saying they had been in compliance with local zoning and licensing ordinances until the city rewrote them just weeks after Taboo opened. The owners also requested that the city provide a list of 42 addresses, mostly along interstates, where a sexually oriented business would be allowed under the revised ordinances.

The city refused to provide the list, saying it was protected by attorney-client privileges. The city also refused requests for the list from The State newspaper in 2012, citing the same reason. The same request was submitted by the newspaper to Richland County in 2012 and 2013, and both requests were refused.

Finally, the city was compelled to make the list public after Taboo’s owners filed a federal lawsuit challenging the zoning and licensing ordinances for adult businesses.

The absurdity of the city’s refusal to reveal areas affected by public zoning ordinances is astounding. The city had created a map of the sites using GPS technology, but that map was not available for public viewing.

The residents of Columbia, in other words, were blocked by their own elected city officials from knowing where adult businesses could locate.

A strengthened FOI bill would not necessarily prevent all injustices of this kind. But it might help discourage governmental bodies from openly and brazenly ignoring the spirit of the law, as they have in these two instances.

Rep. Taylor’s bill would reduce the time officials would have to respond to an FOI request from 15 to 10 working days.

It would hold fees for copying costs to the local prevailing rate. Governments have squelched FOI requests by charging exorbitant fees for copies of documents, sometimes thousands of dollars.

Under the bill, documents must be turned over to those making the request within 30 days, although more time is allowed for documents over two years old. The law currently sets no time requirement for delivery of documents.

The bill also sets up an appeals process for both citizens and public bodies through the Administrative Law Court. Currently, anyone who wants to challenge an FOI decision must hire an attorney and take the appeal to circuit court, which is costly and slow.

These are relatively minor changes in the law but ones that would solve many of the access problems now facing those who make FOI requests. The need is there, and we hope lawmakers make time to address this crucial bill this year.

We would hope that elected officials would understand that the public’s business must be conducted in public. We would hope elected officials would know who their bosses are. But, as the examples in Chester and Columbia point out, not all officials realize that.

It’s clear that in order for the public to have proper access, the state’s Freedom of Information Act must be strengthened. We urge state lawmakers to add it to their list of priorities.

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