A Bluffton state representative has prefiled three bills for next year’s legislative session that would make it easier for the public to request government information.
The bills would also give residents a way to contest a denial of information.
Republican state Rep. Weston Newton said his goal is to make government more accessible for the average citizen.
“The public needs to have easy access to records and needs to understand what their government is doing,” Newton said.
The new bills were the result of a Freedom of Information Act subcommittee Newton chaired this year.
One bill would set up an Office of Freedom of Information Act Review to determine whether FOIA requests were handled correctly, Newton said. The office would handle complaints if a person believed the law was violated and send them to the S.C. Administrative Law Court for a judge to rule on the case.
The law court, which hears complaints and cases against other state agencies, would be a quicker process than filing a lawsuit in Circuit Court, Newton said. If a public body were found to be in violation of FOIA law, the court could award civil penalties, removing the fines and criminal sentences in the current state law.
Public offices that receive FOIA requests can also seek relief from the review office if those requests are “unduly burdensome, overly broad, or otherwise improper,” according to the bill.
The same bill would cap charges to fulfill requests at a $100 maximum per hour. The first two hours spent on a records request would be free, Newton said.
The bill also would shorten the time an agency has to respond to an FOIA request. The agency would have to respond within 10 days with its intentions to fulfill or deny the request; currently, an agency has 15 days to respond. It would be given 20 days for records more than two years old. If the requester does not receive a response within that timeframe, the request is considered approved, Newton said.
The public body would have 30 days from the date the request was approved to produce records for inspection or copying, and 35 days from the approval date for records more than two years old, Newton said.
The second bill would address the S.C. Supreme Court’s June ruling that agendas for regular meetings of public bodies aren’t covered under FOIA law. The bill would require new items to be added to the meeting agenda with at least 24 hours’ notice to the public, just as meeting agendas must be posted at least 24 hours in advance.
Public body members can still add items to the agenda at the meeting, but it must be done by a two-thirds vote. Members must also explain why leaving the new item off the agenda would cause irreparable harm to the public, Newton said.
Changing the requirements to add items to a meeting agenda would prevent the “ambush agenda” that allows controversial topics to be added at the 11th hour to catch the public off-guard, Newton said.
The third bill would eliminate the broad exemption legislators have under FOIA law and replace it with two more limited exemptions. The exemptions would protect documents, such as early drafts of new legislation or ordinances, but would no longer exempt them once they are formally introduced, Newton said.
Newton has taken up ethics and FOIA reform since being elected to the state legislature in 2012, but it’s a task that stretches back to his days on Beaufort County Council. As council chairman, Newton pushed for the installation of cameras in county committee meeting rooms and the forwarding of email chains about policy changes to media outlets, he said.
“It’s a personal goal of mine to be absolutely as transparent as possible,” he said. “The public’s business ought to be done in public, period. It’s fundamental that people need to understand what their representatives are doing for them and what their government does for the people. Refraining from that disclosure is repugnant.”