Originally created 11/26/05

Get a law with teeth



Many of South Carolina's governing bodies need a refresher course on their state's Freedom of Information Act. According to the Associated Press' recent three-part report, they are grossly out of compliance, especially when requests for information come from ordinary citizens, instead of established members of the media.

One of the worst offenders is the Aiken County Sheriff's Office - which, along with the Greenville County Sheriff's Office, charges a whopping $6 to retrieve a crime incident report. South Carolina's open records law, state Attorney General Henry McMaster points out, calls for the cost to be less than what a copy shop would charge - something in the neighborhood of 8 cents a page or less.

The Edgefield County Sheriff's Office charges 25 cents to provide a citizen with an incident report, which is reasonable; $6, however, is unconscionable. Public agencies are not supposed to make money on FOI, because the cost of compliance is included in their budgets.

Lt. Michael Frank says Aiken County Sheriff's Department's $6 charge to the public is mandated by a county council law. That doesn't wash. The council cannot compel the sheriff to violate the Freedom of Information Act. State law trumps local law. The local law, in this case, should be ignored; even better, the county council should repeal it.

Shockingly, the AP survey showed that about 25 percent of the state's law enforcement agencies refused to provide walk-in residents with incident reports, at any price, that the law said they were fully entitled to. Police records, except where sensitive investigations are involved, should be easy, timely and inexpensive for the public to access.

Ordinary citizens have the same right of access as anyone in the media. This needs to be drummed into the heads not only of sheriff's office officials, but other public agencies as well.

Another serious FOI problem the AP series exposed is that 25 percent of the Palmetto State's school board and county council members reported that they had attended executive sessions, which are supposed to stick to tightly defined personnel or legal problems, where topics were brought up that the law requires should have been discussed in public.

When Georgia had this problem, open government advocates lobbied to get the chair persons of public bodies to sign affidavits that the executive session topics did not stray off course. This has had a positive effect.

With false swearing being a felony, the affidavits are taken seriously, says Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson. Watch for legislation along this line to be proposed when the South Carolina legislature convenes in January. Also look for proposals to limit copying costs, and to make sure public employees know what their FOI responsibilities are.

Hopefully, the public will get strongly behind these reforms. The changes, after all, are being designed to make it easier for ordinary South Carolinians to find out what their government is up to. Sometimes it's necessary to remind government that it's the servant, not the boss, of the people.