State's public records law loopholes may be closed

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COLUMBIA - Legislation closing loopholes in South Carolina's open records law is poised to becoming law without a "crown jewel" provision that would have made it easy and inexpensive for people to force obstinate government agencies to turn over public documents.

An 89-0 vote Thursday in the House sent the bill to Gov. Henry McMaster. He says he'll sign it, capping a seven-year effort to strengthen public access to government records.

The Senate approved the bill hours earlier after stripping out the section creating a state hearing officer to settle disputes over requested information.

Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, whose objections killed a nearly identical bill last year, insisted on the change. The Walterboro Democrat says she opposes the estimated $140,000 cost of creating a new division in the Administrative Law Court. Senate rules allow a single senator to block legislation.

The bill's House co-sponsors were disappointed, but with just one hour left in the regular legislative session, they urged their colleagues to lose the "crown jewel" rather than risk it dying again.

Reps. Weston Newton and Bill Taylor say the amended bill still represents progress.

"Now there's a deadline, and that's huge," said Taylor, R-Aiken, a former TV reporter and media consultant whose bills have died repeatedly in the Senate since he first proposed strengthening the state's Freedom of Information Act in 2011.

Public bodies in South Carolina have had 15 business days to respond to a FOIA request, but that can include simply acknowledging receipt. There's no timeline for actually providing the information, essentially allowing requests to be ignored indefinitely.

The bill requires a yes or no decision within 10 business days, and a month more to actually provide the information in most cases. If the data requested is more than two years old, agencies will have 20 days to decide and 35 days to deliver.

"This is a major loophole that's been closed," Taylor said. "We still didn't get what I called the crown jewel."

Currently, the only way to force a public body to comply with the law is to sue in circuit court, which means hiring a lawyer and possibly waiting years for a decision. While the law allows offenders to be charged with a misdemeanor, no one's ever been convicted. The bill doesn't change this process, but it does speed it up.

Bright Matthews said her amendment expedites matters by requiring an initial hearing within 10 days, and a decision within six months, unless a judge extends a case for "good cause."

But people and news outlets would still have to pay thousands to challenge a refusal in court, said South Carolina Press Association director Bill Rogers.

"This does not lower the hurdle for folks' access by essentially creating a people's court tribunal," said Newton, R-Bluffton. But "this is a significant step forward."

The bill also limits government fees to the actual cost of producing the records. Information in digital form must be provided at no additional expense, and excessive rates for copies will be prohibited.

At a 2013 legislative hearing, Alberta Wasden of Wagener testified the town of Swansea tried to charge her $9,996 for copies of four years' worth of town budgets and board minutes from 10 meetings. She ended up paying more than $500 after media reported the charge.

The bill's supporters say it should end such absurdity.

McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said the governor will sign the bill, though he'd hoped to sign the version the House passed 93-0 in March.

"He will always support any legislation that makes government more open and transparent," Symmes said.