Guest Opinion: A stronger FOI for South Carolina

  • Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Post and Courier

The sad fact is that some South Carolina governmental agencies and officials don’t want people to know what they’re doing, how they’re spending taxes and who’s giving them money. Also, sad to say, the mindset at some public agencies is that their convenience comes first and the public’s right to know how its business is being conducted comes later.

So it is heartening that a subcommittee of the S.C. House Judiciary Committee last Thursday gave its OK to a bill intended to stop some of those abuses.

Last year, the House approved a similar bill that died in the Senate.

Both chambers should acknowledge that the present Freedom of Information Act has weaknesses and approve this reform bill as a good step toward strengthening the law.

Some agencies and officials get it right. They respond to requests for information quickly and completely. But others have assigned absurdly high price tags for filling such requests, and have obfuscated and dragged their heels as long as possible.

The bill in question, by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, would require faster response to FOI requests and prohibit public bodies from charging citizens more than it costs to copy requested documents.

The legislation also sets up an appeal process for both citizens and public bodies through the Administrative Law Court. Currently, a citizen must hire a lawyer and take his appeal to circuit court, a costly and slow process.

Two examples of how that administrative court might be used: Susan Herdina, a lawyer for the city of Charleston, told the subcommittee that an out-of-state corporation, wanting to gain a business edge, asked for information about money paid to city vendors. Lawyers, she said, fish for time-consuming information to help their cases. If Rep. Taylor’s bill passes, the city could dispute those requests in court, just as citizens could ask the court to make public bodies comply with the FOI law.

A spotlight has been focused on ethics in South Carolina government. The people have made it clear that they want an ethical government. Committees are discussing how the laws should be adjusted to eliminate unethical behavior.

Vital to keeping public officials honest is making them accountable. And the way to make them accountable is to have accurate, complete information about the way they handle public business.

If anything, the Freedom of Information bill being proposed doesn’t go far enough. Legislators are not required to release their official e-mail correspondence. They should be.

But Rep. Taylor’s bill would do some real good, and the Legislature should support it.

Unless they have something to hide.

Opinions that appear on this page in Letters to the Editor or in columns do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

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