Legislators could soon be required to turn over any emails or letters they send involving state business — ending an exemption to South Carolina’s open records law that they’ve enjoyed for decades.
A House Ethics and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) study panel voted 19-1 Monday in favor of a proposal that would end legislators’ exemptions from open records laws. The vote was largely symbolic — the actual legislation would need to be introduced when the full General Assembly returns in January, but it signaled what House leaders will try to pass in 2015.
For four years, a bipartisan coalition of House members have tried to revamp the state’s FOIA laws to crack down on agencies that abuse or ignore the law by keeping documents secret with little consequence. The effort has been led by State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, a former journalist who said some agencies– especially small, local governments– purposely charge exorbitant fees to intimidate a person out of making the request.
“We’ve had so many subcommittee meetings over the years where we’ve heard the outrageous things that have happened with this,” he said during Monday’s meeting. “Charging $10,000 to a citizen to get some information they want? C’mon. And copying charges at $10 a page? All of that is just ludicrous.”
Taylor’s efforts have been derailed in the Senate, however, as senators were uncomfortable with language that would have also ended the exemption that state legislators currently have. Senators say they often receive emails from constituents that involve that constituent’s personal issues and don’t want those emails to be public.
Other legislators, such as State Rep. Grady Brown, D-Bishopville, say they do not have time or resources to make copies of all their correspondence. “I don’t have a secretary. I don’t have an aide at home. I answer my own phone calls, I write my own letters,” Brown said. “And I am not going to subject myself to criticism from the public when I’m trying to do something to help ‘John Doe’ and breaking the law while I’m not even aware of it.”
But State Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, argued that every other elected official in South Carolina already has to do the same thing. “Every city, every county, they’re already doing the very things that we’re saying, ‘Oh my gosh, how would I be able to handle that?'” Newton said. “The tiniest of town councils are doing it today.”
Supporters did vote to protect constituents by limiting the documents that would be covered by open records requests. Letters, emails, or text messages directly from regular citizens would not be covered by the law, but any correspondence with government or agency officials would be considered public. That means a letter from a constituent which is then forwarded to an agency (for example, a resident complaining about potholes that is forwarded to the state Department of Transportation) would be considered public.
State Rep. Kirkman Finlay said communication with taxpayer-funded entities should be public. “If we ask a state agency to do something, we are very clearly doing the public’s work and we need to be held accountable for that,” he told other committee members. “The other side of that sword is when we do it and we don’t want anybody to know, it’s probably because we’re not doing something for the public’s benefit.”
The study committee will draft legislation to introduce in the House next January.
The proposal would also set a deadline for any FOIA requests for public agencies. Under the current law, an agency must indicate within 15 days whether or not it will be able to access the records. But there is no deadline for when the documents must be turned over. The draft legislation approved Monday would require agencies to make the records available within 30-35 days of indicating it has them. It would also create a special office within the Administrative Law Court to handle disputes about whether or not an agency is following the law.