SC House panel advances bills aimed at improving access to public documents and meetings

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Proposals aimed at ending governmental abuses of the state's open records law advanced Wednesday in the South Carolina House.

Legislation sent to the full House Judiciary Committee would require government entities to respond more quickly to requests, bar them from charging excessive fees, and create a way to settle disputes quickly and cheaply.

"It's designed to clean up the abuses that exist and are in practice today and make it easy for citizens to seek redress," said Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, the main sponsor.

Under the latest proposal, public bodies would have to respond to a public records request within 10 business days, and the information must be provided within 30 calendar days — unless the requested data is more than two years old. In that scenario, both can take five additional days.

Currently, governmental bodies have 15 business days to respond to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, but that's often a simple acknowledgement of receipt. They can indefinitely drag out providing the data. The only way for someone to force compliance is to sue in circuit court, which means hiring a lawyer and possibly waiting years for a decision.

"The law is worthless if it can't be enforced. Citizens and newspapers can't afford to hire lawyers," said Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association. He urged the panelists to approve the legislation, noting legislators have "talked about it and talked about it" for years.

Attempts to make public documents more accessible have died repeatedly in the Legislature, due largely to a poison pill amendment removing legislators' exemption from FOIA. This year, Newton sponsored a separate bill that would make legislators' correspondence subject to the law, though emails from constituents would remain exempt. It advanced unanimously to the full committee.

Open records advocates hope dealing with that issue separately gives the changes a better chance.

Advocates for law enforcement, counties and cities all testified Wednesday that they fully support open government, then proceeded to argue against changing the response time and allowed fees. Newton's bill would ban charging for the first two hours spent collecting the information. Additional time would be capped at $100 an hour, and copying fees would have to be in line with commercial rates.

Sheriffs' Association director Jarrod Bruder said many FOIA requests to law enforcement come from inmates, suspects and their attorneys, not the general public.

Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Little Mountain, cast the lone "no" on that 4-1 vote.

"Sure, it's nice to give somebody two hours of free records, but somebody's paying for that," he said. "It seems to me that just gives somebody opportunity for further abuse."

Under Newton's bill, disputes could be settled through a FOIA review in the Administrative Law Court. Both the public and governmental entities can quickly seek resolution there — whether the complaint is about noncompliance or a gadfly's frivolous request — without clogging up circuit courts with expensive cases, Newton said.

A third bill advanced Wednesday would require public bodies to post agendas for their meetings at least 24 hours beforehand. That's a response to last year's state Supreme Court ruling that public bodies don't have to post what they'll discuss. The Senate unanimously approved a similar bill last week.

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