COLUMBIA, SC — A state House panel Thursday approved a bill aimed at making public records more accessible.
Sponsored by state Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, the bill seeks to amend the Freedom of Information Act – the law regulating public records – to curb excessive fees charged those seeking records and ensure those requests are filled in a timely manner.
Supporters laud the bill as a way to ensure the state’s public records law achieves its intent.
S.C. Press Association president Bill Rogers endorsed the bill, calling it a “reasonable compromise” that will make it easier to gain access to records while allowing public agencies to recoup the cost of fulfilling requests for information.
After two days of testimony, the House Judiciary subcommittee approved the bill with an amendment changing how much public bodies can charge for providing documents.
Previous proposals would have prohibited or limited charges that government agencies could charge for staff time spent fulfilling requests. That was unpopular with public agencies that deal with numerous records requests.
Public agencies currently are required to tell those requesting records within 15 business days whether they have the information requested. But the existing state law says little about how much those agencies can charge to provide information and nothing about when they must produce the records.
If Taylor’s proposal becomes law, public bodies and officials would have 10 business days to respond to requests and a total of 30 days to provide documents. If the information requested is more than two years old, the agencies would have a total of 45 days.
The bill also would:
• Require the public body to post online what it charges to produce records
• Limit those fees to the cost of the search, retrieval and redaction of records
• Limit copying fees to commercial rates and prohibit charging for documents stored or delivered in electronic format
Limit charges for staff time to the pro-rated hourly salary of the lowest-paid employee with the skills and training to fulfill the request.
The bill also would create a Freedom of Information Act Review Office within the state’s Administrative Law Court. The office would hear appeals from members of the public who think they are being stonewalled by agencies. Public agencies also could seek relief from unreasonable requests.
Jay Bender, a media law attorney who sometimes represents The State and Reid H. Montgomery Freedom of Information Chair at the University of South Carolina, said the review office is “a quicker, flexible avenue to resolve disputes” than filing a lawsuit.
Bender said the current system deters people from fighting for public records because of “the cost (and) the fear of having to hire a lawyer to go do something that you shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to go do.”
The bill now goes to the full Judiciary Committee for consideration.
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