Politics & Government

Lowcountry senator blocks bill expanding open-records law

State Sen. Margie Bright Matthews (D-Jasper)
State Sen. Margie Bright Matthews (D-Jasper)

A local senator’s effort to quash a bill expanding the public’s access to government records is getting a workaround by others in the South Carolina General Assembly.

A group of lawmakers in the S.C. House of Representatives, including Rep. Weston Newton, R-Beaufort, is hoping to get around Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro, who single-handedly blocked a bill two months ago that would have created a new office within the Administrative Law Court to decide appeals when a public body refuses to release documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

The group has tacked on that bill’s language to another bill that is currently pending in a House committee. The second bill, which was completely replaced with the language of the first, also has to do with giving the public more access to governmental information by requiring S.C. police agencies to provide dashcam and audio recordings to members of the public upon request.

Newton and other proponents say they are hopeful the newly revised bill will have more success when it goes before the Senate a second time. He thinks the Senate will add back in the dashcam language, and then feel more pressure to pass the bill because of their support for the dashcam provisions.

Time is tight, though, to carry out that plan before the end of the legislative session on June 2. The House must still vote twice on the new bill and send it to the Senate for amendments, and a conference committee must then work out the differences.

Matthews, who replaced slain Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper, in January, reportedly balked at the cost the Freedom of Information Act measure. The new office would require about $140,000 each year, and the bill would limit how much local agencies can charge the news media for requests.

The bill, co-authored by Newton and Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, would also replace criminal penalties that have never been used with civil penalties for agencies that violate open records laws.

Bright Matthews did not respond to several calls and emails last week.

She told The Post and Courier in Charleston that the bill would overwhelm small, local governments, such as Colleton County, that have limited staff to handle information requests. And she told The Associated Press that she’d been bullied to remove her opposition by proponents of open records, some of whom allegedly gave out her cellphone number to reporters.

“That’s not necessarily the best way to get to me. I will not be bullied. I am going to protect my six counties,” she told the AP.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said his organization did not give out Bright Matthews’ personal number and protested the accusations of bullying.

“That’s the public speaking to her and lobbying,” Rogers said.

“It’s important the public have access to public documents, and this will make it much easier, quicker and cheaper,” he added. “How can you be against it?”

The Freedom Act Review bill would cut down the maximum response time on most records requests from 15 days to 10 days, giving agencies less time to decide whether to provide records to the public. If the request is granted, agencies would then have 30 days to produce the information, or longer if the records are more than two years old.

Public bodies also couldn’t charge more than the lowest hourly salary of an employee handling the records.

The House ethics committee wrote the bill after hearing testimony from people who’d been asked to pay thousands of dollars in fees for records requests and had been left waiting more than a year and a half to receive the information they sought, Newton said.

“We tried to create a pathway that was a two-way street for easy determination and cost-efficient and cost-effective for folks to be able to seek redress when government refused to give them their records,” he said.

Newton said he has tried to negotiate changes to the bill with Bright Matthews, but the talks were unsuccessful. Rogers said he’d also spoken with Bright Matthews earlier in the process, and both noted the legislation was heavily vetted by law enforcement, municipalities and county associations before it went to the Senate.

“So much time and work has gone into this bill, it deserves to get a vote,” Rogers said.

Bright Matthews previously came under scrutiny for failing to pay property taxes on seven properties in Colleton County but managed to pay nearly $14,000 in delinquent taxes before they were sold at auction, according to Colleton County tax collector Larry Lightsey.

On May 16, she paid about $10,000 in current taxes on the properties.

Rebecca Lurye: 843-706-8155, @IPBG_Rebecca