Op Ed: Public Notice

  • Tuesday, March 12, 2013

By Trisha O’Connor

The FOI reform bill now working its way through the state legislative process is a good bill that would give citizens faster and more affordable access to public information.

Spearheaded by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, the bill would prevent agencies from charging fees that exceed actual copying costs or exceed the local prevailing rate. The fee schedules would have to be posted online and charges for document searches could not exceed the prorated hourly salary of the lowest paid employee with skills and training to perform the request.

Many public bodies across the state operate from the knowledge that they are doing the people’s business with the people’s money. These public servants know that it’s just not right to charge citizens exorbitant rates for information that is rightly theirs. Sadly, there are scores of cases in which producing public documents serves as quasi profit centers for government and roadblocks to citizens access. Public information shouldn’t just be available to the people who can afford it.

Costs are more clearly defined in some other states.

In Delaware, the first 20 pages are free and the cost beyond that is 10 cents per page. Agencies may charge only the cost of a DVD or CD if necessary in reproducing electronic records. Montana also charges a dime per page although most local governments don’t charge citizens anything for documents readily available. Montana law limits copying charges for electronic records to the agency’s actual out-of-pocket costs.

Tennessee public bodies charge 15 cents per page as do Florida public agencies. The Sunshine State has a second provision that allows for a reasonable charge, based on actual expenses incurred, if an FOI request requires the extensive use of agency resources. The fee must be reasonable and must be based on actual costs incurred. “Extensive” isn’t defined in law. However, journalists report that it has been defined as short as 15 minutes and as long as 4 hours.

Ohio law allows public bodies to charge whatever making a copy “costs,” a not clearly defined amount although journalists there report it is rarely abused. And public bodies are required to provide information in the manner requested, thwarting attempts to require paper copies of digital records.

Vermont and New Jersey set their rate at a nickel.

In addition to making fees in South Carolina more predictable and reasonable, other proposed changes in Rep. Taylor’s reform bill would require agencies to respond to open-records requests within 10 working days rather than the current 15 business days. And a document must be turned over to the requester within 30 days of the request with more time allowed for records more than two years old. The current law sets no time requirement for delivery of documents which has often led to months of delays. The only recourse at present would be legal action to seek release of the documents.

One innovative change in the bill would give the Administrative Law Court the ability to hear FOI appeals rather than sending citizens and journalists through expensive legal processes that can take years and thousands of dollars to resolve.

The bill as proposed won’t create the degree of openness and transparency we need. Amendments related to an exemption provision for legislators have created a broader and important debate. But possible refinements should not stop the bill’s forward motion.

What’s that old saying about not letting perfect be the enemy of good? We call on the Legislature to move Rep. Taylor’s bill into law and open the way for needed progress.

Trisha O’Connor is chair of the Freedom of Information Committee of the S.C. Press Association and Media Executive in Residence at Coastal Carolina University. She is a retired executive editor of The Sun News in Myrtle Beach.

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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