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North Myrtle Beach keeps tight grip on public info

Eight months after receiving criticism over a policy designed to restrict access to public information, this city's leaders continue to thwart efforts to obtain documents that would shed light on how they conduct business and spend tax dollars.

The policy, approved in July, might violate state law because the city apparently cannot provide justification for the fee it charges to locate documents that should be readily available, according to Jay Bender, a Columbia lawyer and expert on the state's Freedom of Information Act.

City manager John Smithson has not responded to repeated requests for information about the policy, which was enacted after other documents obtained through the FOIA by The Sun News raised questions about the public safety director's actions during an April wildfire that destroyed 75 homes in Barefoot Resort.

Meanwhile, the director of a group that advocates for victims of domestic violence said she'll keep pressure on Reggie Lloyd, director of the State Law Enforcement Division, to investigate the city's public safety department.

"He [Lloyd] needs to hear from the victims who have experienced inappropriate actions by the North Myrtle Beach police department," said Vicki Bourus, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

The North Myrtle Beach Citizens' Association will hold a public forum on the actions of the city's public safety department at 7 tonight at the city's J. Bryan Floyd Community Center, 1030 Possum Trot Road.

The city's new policy for providing public documents includes a research fee of $25 per hour for any request that takes longer than 15 minutes to fulfill.

A disagreement over that charge has prevented The Sun News from reviewing invoices that would show how $73,944.21 in taxpayer money has been spent defending the city against lawsuits filed by former employees.

The Sun News on Feb. 2 requested copies of invoices the city has received from Gignilliat, Savitz & Bettis LLP, a Columbia law firm that represents the city in employment-related lawsuits. Nicole Aiello, the city's public information director, responded on Feb. 23 by saying it will take 10 hours and cost $250 for the city to research the request.

The Sun News asked for clarification of the research fee, including why it would take 10 hours to locate invoices from a single vendor, and Smithson said on Feb. 26 that he "will review the charges and get back to you."

Since then, Smithson and Aiello have not responded to repeated requests for clarification of the charge.

Bender said the 10-hour research time raises questions about how well the city maintains its records.

"It's hard to believe that it would take them that long to find invoices for the same vendor," he said.

Bender said the $25-per-hour fee might be legal, but the city must justify how it arrived at that figure. Bender said state law allows governments to charge a fee for researching requests, but that fee cannot exceed the city's actual cost.

The Sun News on March 3 also requested police incident reports associated with three of Mayor Marilyn Hatley's friends and political supporters, and another police incident report filed by the mother of a sexual assault victim who said police disregarded her daughter's claims. State law allows governments to take 15 work days to respond to such requests. That 15-day deadline expired Wednesday, but The Sun News had not yet received a response from the city.

Bourus said she has several criminal domestic violence or sexual assault victims who plan to meet with Lloyd to discuss their treatment by the city's public safety department.

"When you have police leadership that does not respond appropriately to these types of crimes, the message gets out to the public that they won't do anything about it," Bourus said.

Among the topics to be discussed at the citizens' meeting tonight is SLED's review into allegations that William Bailey, the former public safety director, interfered in a criminal domestic violence investigation involving the daughter of one of Hatley's top political supporters.

SLED spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said there has been no change in the status of the agency's review.

Bailey has been suspended pending that SLED review and in January was demoted to lieutenant because Smithson said Bailey lied about an unrelated crime involving the theft of his city-issued police handgun.

The city's new public information policy is contrary to a growing recognition among municipalities across South Carolina that government should be more transparent and accountable to residents, according to a report by the S.C. Policy Council, a conservative group that advocates for transparency in government.

Many area governments -including Myrtle Beach and Horry County - now put more information, such as check registers, online for easier access by residents. Horry County also broadcasts its council meetings on its Web site. North Myrtle Beach, however, has made less information available on its Web site in recent months by removing archived news releases and minutes of council meetings.

The Policy Council also said the city is double-billing residents for public information because the city is paying a full-time public information officer, whose duties include responding to inquiries from the public and the media. The salary range for that position is between $52,603 and $78,904 per year.

The city's policy was a reaction to criticism from residents and media in the wake of an April wildfire that destroyed 75 homes and damaged dozens more in the Barefoot Resort neighborhood. Public documents obtained in the wake of that fire showed Bailey misled the public about the city's preparedness and response.

The city also was criticized over its decision to edit police dashcam videos and dispatch and 911 recordings that were presented to a task force studying the wildfire response. A public safety employee spent nearly a week editing the videos and calls, according to statements made during conversations secretly recorded by former police Lt. Randy Fisher.

Some residents have said the calls and videos were edited to cover up the city's lack of preparation and make it appear as if Bailey had been contacted sooner than he really was. Telephone records show police officers and dispatchers could not contact Bailey until after the fire had hit Barefoot Resort.

Fisher's recordings also show Bailey and other city leaders delayed giving public documents to the media, even though the information was available, until after the edited version was presented by the task force.

"They're [city officials] going to deny the information and explain we've got some more data we want to go through, we've got a meeting coming up [and] we don't want to pre-empt that meeting," Bailey said on the recording.

Fisher has alleged Bailey interfered in the criminal domestic violence case. Fisher was forced to resign in November because city officials say he gave confidential information about the wildfire to a resident who has been critical of the city. Fisher has said he did not give the resident any confidential information.

State Rep. Tracy Edge, R-North Myrtle Beach, said he is working on legislation that would eliminate research fees such as the one the city is charging. The proposal would allow governments to only charge for the actual cost of copying.

"The more Internet use expands and the greater amount of information that is available on the Web should reduce the claim that staff time will be involved," Edge said. "Freedom of Information should not be a money-making budget item for any government. I have voted for every effort to expand Freedom of Information policies for citizens since I've been in the House."

Bender, however, said the state's budget crisis likely will forestall any attempts to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act.

"I don't think there's any chance of getting any meaningful amendments to the act this year," he said.

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