Two bills filed this month in the South Carolina General Assembly would lessen the time and cost associated with challenging denials of public records requests.
The measures introduced by Sen. Chip Campsen and Reps. Weston Newton and Bill Taylor call for state administrative hearing officers to preside over disputes regarding requests made under South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act.
Those who want to challenge the denial of a public records request now must often wait up to a year for a circuit court judge to rule on the matter, said Campsen, a Republican from Charleston. He said administrative hearing officers would be able to handle these cases more promptly.
In October 2015, the Independent Mail, The Greenville News and The Journal of Seneca sued the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division after authorities refused to release a video from a dashboard camera related to the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Zachary Hammond. The video was released about two weeks after the lawsuit was filed and the case was ultimately dismissed, according to court records.
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An added advantage of the proposed bills is that people and groups would not necessarily have to hire an attorney to challenge the denial of a records request before a hearing officer, said Bill Rogers, executive director of South Carolina Press Association.
The bills include other proposed changes in the state's Freedom of Information Act.
The amount of time that government agencies have to approve or deny a records requests would decrease from 15 working days to 10 working days, according to the bills.
Rogers said another "big improvement" is that agencies would be required to provide records within 30 calendar days after a request is approved. The current law does not specify when documents must be turned over.
According to the bills, a records request would not be required to obtain documents produced and distributed or reviewed by any member of a public body during a public meeting for the preceding six-month period.
The bills also say that agencies may not impose copying charges that exceed the “prevailing commercial rate for producing copies.”
The state House of Representatives approved a similar bill in 2015. But the measure was derailed last year when a minority report filed by Democratic Sen. Margie Bright Matthews of Walterboro blocked further consideration.
Campsen said the bill that he filed incorporates provisions from the previous legislation that are supported by the South Carolina Association of Counties and the Municipal Association of South Carolina.
Rogers said the state press association also supports the bills, which will be considered after state lawmakers return to Columbia next month.
“We hope that by starting early we can actually get something done this coming session,” he said. “These bills are very similar to a compromise bill that all parties agreed to last year. Let’s hope the support continues.”