Saturday’s editorial comes via the Florence Morning News:
We were delighted to hear that Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, has re-filed his bill for reforming the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It passed the S.C. House 101-1 – shame on Rep. Greg Delleney, the new chair of the House Judiciary Committee, for voting against – but then stalled in the Senate in the final days of the legislative session last summer.
The version filed for next session is once again a sound, and hardly radical, reform of the FOIA. We are at a loss as to why there’d be any opposition at all. Could it be that some elected officials are against open government?
Taylor, a former TV newsman, says the major component of the reform is increased enforcement. He rightly notes that, “A law that is not enforceable is not a law at all.”
The key provisions in that regard would increase FOIA fines from $100 to $500 for first violations and from $300 to $1,500 for third and beyond. It would also allow magistrates to provide immediate legal relief by holding violators in civil contempt if they fail to comply promptly.
It may be the stepped-up enforcement that gave some senators – and one rep – a case of freedom-loving indigestion last year. It is one thing they pass a bill that supports an ideal, like better public access to governmental information. It is quite another to pass legislation that really makes it happen.
Other parts of the bill reduce the ridiculous amount of time now allowed for governments, and governmental organizations, to respond to FOIA requests. The initial response time would drop from 15 days to seven (that is, from the time a governmental entity receives a request, it would have seven, rather than 15, days to notify the filer if the request can be met) and the compliance time, the amount of time in which the request must be met, would change from 30 business days to 30 calendar days.
Governments would also be prohibited from charging some of the exorbitant fees that some now charge for copying, or staff time, related to filling a request. That’s all good, although we’d prefer the see the response times dropped further still. Many FOIAs are filed in response to sudden events, which ascribes a timely nature to the request. Delaying release of information for a couple of months often dampens the impact.
Which is exactly why, in our opinion, a number of organizations always take the maximum time allowed.
It is an exercise in expired, equine flagellation for us to once again point out the importance of transparent government, and hence, of a robust FOIA law. But we’re going to do it anyway. (Sorry, Mr. Ed.)
Most governments do far too much in secret. In our view, there’s precious little of the people’s business that ought not be conducted where the people can see what is going on. It takes neither a rocket nor a political scientist to follow the logic here. Public officials are elected by the public and spend the public’s money. Scrutiny of their actions keeps the honorables honest and almost always serves the public interest best, although it can make the wheels of government turn with something less than lightning speed. FOIA is the only real tool the public – and the press – has to maintain scrutiny. Meetings must be open and above board and records must be available.
Governmental entities in the Pee Dee are not exactly exemplars of open government. Most boards here duck into “executive session” at the drop of a hat – usually a lawyer’s hat – and few turn over requested information any faster than they have to. We have noted the failings of Florence County, and, more recently, Florence School District 1, in these regards. They are not alone.
It is probably fair that we also point out a few who do it the right way. Francis Marion University is almost certainly the most obvious example of a governmental institution that supports FOIA laws through word and action. No surprise there. It’s also among the best run in the area. The better the government, the less it has to hide and the more likely it is to be a FOIA complier.
The City of Florence is also good about this. It uses executive session fairly judiciously, and hands over easy-to-find information without the silly paperwork many governments require.
We wish more were like them, but don’t expect they will be without some coercion.
The proposed FOIA reform bill will provide some of that, for citizen and professional newsgatherer alike.
It ought to pass.
It’s in everyone’s interest.