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Editorial: Transparency fight must move forward

  • Wednesday, January 22, 2014

It’s becoming apparent that lawmakers may once again be dragging their feet when it comes to open government reform.

A bill sponsored by S.C. House Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, would be a significant starting point for such reform, but the legislation – four years in the making – may still be left on the cutting room floor after the General Assembly finishes the second half of their current two-year session.

Taylor noted that his “crystal ball is broken” when asked at a S.C. Press Association event recently if his legislation had any hope of passing this year. That’s an understandable response.

The original bill has taken a bumpy ride in Columbia. It was first introduced during the 2011-2012 session of the General Assembly. It moved through a House Committee, then the House floor where it received bipartisan support and was sent to the S.C. Senate near the end of the two-year session in 2012. In the Senate, it was referred to committee, but died before gaining any traction.

Taylor’s bill was reintroduced in the 2013-2014 session and currently resides in the S.C. House Judiciary Committee.

It would be a victory for transparent government if the bill – H. 3613 – could actually become law in 2014. The bill would push for local officials – such as City and County Council representatives as well as state agencies – to be more open by increasing fines for violating the law, shortening the response time for Freedom of Information requests and creating a consistency in rulings.

Another bill – H.3641 - also pushes for open government reform, and seeks to answer questions related to legislative concerns over releasing email information. Legislative emails need to be public information. Currently, that’s not the case, but Taylor’s bill would thankfully give enough teeth to our state’s Freedom of Information Act to try to ensure such correspondence is open for public review.

Legislators obviously want to protect certain correspondence with their constituents. However, if an email pertains to the business of a city, county, school board or the state, that communication needs to be considered public information.

There also seems to be some disagreement about whether there should be an independent agency to oversee Freedom of Information requests. Currently, if a resident or media organization has a problem getting a request filled, they’ll probably be stuck filing a lawsuit. Depending on the severity of the situation, individuals and media companies likely and understandably will not want to spend loads of money and have the days fly off – the proverbial calendar as a request runs through the legal process.

Taylor’s bill wisely outlines that Freedom of Information requests would be heard by the administrative law court in Columbia, creating a centralized outlet for those hearings. Additionally, the more requests that are heard, the more public entities will know what is required to be public information.

In December, local media outlets, including the Aiken Standard, faced a situation where Aiken city officials were withholding information pertaining to incident reports involving minors.

Without a law pushing open, transparent government, parents and school children could have been left in the dark regarding alleged criminal activity in our schools.

Thankfully, the City reversed that decision and reinstituted their policy of releasing such reports.

Unfortunately, if an official or agency is determined to hide information, costly hurdles will likely be faced to gain access. It shouldn’t be that way. Hopefully the General Assembly is sensible enough to break down any lack of transparency and provide the state with sensible open government reform.

— Aiken Standard

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