It’s been a long time coming, but the Legislature passed a Freedom of Information reform bill last week that gives South Carolinians faster and cheaper access to public documents.
The House, led by Reps. Weston Newton and Bill Taylor, had to give up on plans to establish an FOIA hearing officer, after the Senate balked, but the good of the law far outweighs the loss of easier enforcement.
The new law reduces the time an agency has to respond to a request from 15 days to 10 days. And it requires agencies to fulfill FOI requests within 30 days in most cases. In the past, a few agencies abused the law by dragging out their response for months.
The law also ends some agencies’ outrageous charges for copies of documents; now, charges are limited to the prevailing commercial rate. Nor can they charge for “copies” of electronic records, although they are not required to create an electronic version of a record when it does not exist.
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The law makes it clear that any police dash-cam video involving death, injury, property damage or the use of deadly force must be released. However, it allows police to go before a Circuit Court judge to argue that withholding the recording is more important than the public interest in disclosure.
Filing an FOI suit has been a slow process, often dragging on for a year or more. The new law requires an initial Circuit Court hearing be set within 10 days of service of legal papers.
The law augments the criminal violation provision and sets up a civil fine of $500 for arbitrary and capricious violations of the law. And it allows a public body to request a hearing on requests that are unduly burdensome, overly broad, vague or repetitive.
The law takes effect upon the signature of Gov. Henry McMaster, who supported many of these changes when he worked on the Ethics Reform Study Committee several years ago.
Without the provision creating hearing officers, enforcement of the law remains problematic. But we’ve taken a big step for more transparency in our state.
S.C. Press Association