SC citizens, agencies differ on public records access plan

01/31/2013 11:28 AM

01/31/2013 9:24 PM

Ordinary citizens seeking public information and government agencies receive numerous requests for records have competing ideas about a state House bill aimed at improving the public’s access to records.

Sponsored by state Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, the bill seeks to amend the state’s 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.

Public bodies currently are required to tell those requesting records within 15 business days whether they will provide the documents. But the existing state law says little about how much those agencies can charge to fulfill a request and nothing about when a public body must produce the records.

If Taylor’s proposal becomes law, public bodies and officials would have 10 business days to respond to requests and an additional 30 days to provide the documents, or a total of 45 days, if the information is more than two years old.

Taylor originally proposed barring public bodies from charging for staff time associated with researching and producing public records. But after hearing complaints from government bodies that deal with “huge, voluminous requests,” Taylor offered an amendment Thursday to allow charging for staff time after five hours.

On Thursday, a House panel considering Taylor’s bill heard from both sides.

Alberta Wadsen of Wagener said she received a $10,000 bill after requesting a small stack of paperwork from a town. Urging the panel to approve the bill, she said, “This bill is the closest thing we’ve got to holding public officials accountable.”

Susan Herdina, an attorney with the City of Charleston, said city offices field several thousand public records requests each year, many from private interests that use the information to make money. Herdina asked the committee to consider requiring businesses to pay the full cost of staff time and resources used to fulfill their requests, while charging less to the public and media.

She also asked the committee to consider the “real problem” expressed by private citizens seeking public information, specifically, “recalcitrant public bodies who are not timely in responding or, for whatever reason, don’t want to respond.”

Jody Hamm, who handled open records requests for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for 15 years, warned requiring agencies to fulfill requests for free would attract “hobby” and frivolous requests.

Rep. Taylor also has proposed an amendment to create a Freedom of Information Act Review Office within the state’s Administrative Law Court. The office would hear appeals from those seeking and fulfilling open records requests.

The subcommittee will continue discussion of the bill at its next meeting.

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