State Government Charges for Public Information
Despite constant proclamations from state officials about their commitment to transparency, the Policy Council and The Nerve have thoroughly documented how difficult it is in South Carolina to get state employees to turn over public documents. The more deeply that citizens get involved in state government, the more critical it is that they have access to the information mandated by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Freedom of information is the only thing that can keep lawmakers directly accountable to private citizens, journalists, and other entities that serve the public interest.
A bill currently being debated in the House, H. 3235, would prevent state officials from charging exorbitant amounts of money to provide public documents, a much-needed reform that should never have been necessary. It’s common practice for agencies and officials to charge citizens and organizations for both the printing costs and the labor involved in searching for public documents, an amount they are free to define however they choose. Citizens pay Public Information Officers annual salaries to provide them with public information: state government shouldn’t be allowed to charge them double for labor.
H. 3235 mandates that agencies charge only the printing costs of any FOIA request, a cost that cannot exceed the standard market rate for copying and printing. The agency or body must inform the requester of the availability of the document within fifteen business days, and if the document requested is less than two years old, it must be provided within thirty days. There’s no good reason for small requests to take even that amount of time (especially in bureaucracies notorious for constant, exhaustive documentation), but considering how long some agencies take to respond to FOIA requests, it’s an important standard to set.
The current version of the bill under consideration was amended in committee to remove the legislative exemption in effect, which allows lawmakers to deny any request for their working papers, correspondence, or memoranda. This exemption makes it impossible for interested citizens to have any access to information about what their representatives are doing on their behalf: and, as The Nerve has recently reported, this information is frequently critical to understanding how and why policy is made. Lawmakers shouldn’t get to play by a different set of rules than other state employees.
Fulfilling FOIA requests in a reasonable period of time at a reasonable cost should be a top priority of any agency or official who claims to be dedicated to transparency. While it’s unfortunate that legislation is required to make officials and lawmakers fulfill their responsibilities to the public, no safeguard could be more critical to an accountable government.