COLUMBIA — A bill aimed at curbing excessive fees levied against people requesting public information and ensuring those requests are filled in a timely manner will get another look by a state House panel.
Sponsored by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, the bill seeks to amend the state's Freedom of Information Act — the state law regulating public records requests.
If the bill becomes law, public bodies would have 10 days to respond to public records requests, and 30 or 45 days to provide the information requested, depending on how old the information is.
Currently, public bodies are required to respond to public records requests within 15 business days to say whether the request will be fulfilled, and nothing about when a public body must provide public records.
Taylor's proposal also would limit the amount of money public bodies can charge for fulfilling records requests, prohibiting public bodies for charging for staff time associated with researching and producing public records.
But hearing complaints from government bodies that deal with “enormous” requests that take time to gather, Taylor offered an amendment Thursday that would allow charging for staff time after five hours.
The House judiciary subcommittee spent the entire meeting hearing from representatives of those agencies and private citizens who reported being stonewalled by city offices and school boards when seeking information about their spending and budgets.
Alberta Wadsen of Wagner said she received a $10,000 bill after receiving a half-inch of paperwork she requested.
“This is such an important bill,” Wadsen said. “Citizens good or bad have a right to government information.”
But Susan Herdina, an attorney with the City of Charleston, said city offices field several thousand public records requests each year, many of them from private interests that use the information to make money.
Herdina asked the committee to consider implementing a different fee schedule, where members of the public pay some fee, members of the media pay nothing, and commercial interests pay the full amount for staff time and resources used to fulfill requests.
Herdina also asked the committee to consider the “real problem” expressed by private citizens seeking public information: “recalcitrant public bodies who are not timely in responding or for whatever reason don't want to respond.”
The subcommittee has not voted on the proposal and will continue discussion of the bill next Thursday.