South Carolina

Want to see what Beaufort Co. government is up to? It could cost you thousands

In Beaufort County, it can cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to access public records.

The county’s records department says these costs pay for time spent accessing and compiling records. However, some say it creates a financial barrier that prevents the public from holding government officials accountable.

Mare Baracco, a Port Royal resident, filed suit earlier this year against the county after she received a bill for $12,000 when asking for the release of county council members’ emails. When asked why the price was so high, the county told Baracco it would take 167 hours for staff to search and compile emails — which are stored online electronically — at $72 an hour plus $16 an hour for the emails to be redacted.

The lawsuit states the county’s use “of excessive fees and costs is a willful violation” of the Freedom of Information Act “designed to chill the public’s right to access to government records.”

Other FOIA requests from Baracco show hourly price breakdowns anywhere from $16 to $33.19 to $72.

On one occasion, Baracco received 12 pages of emails from Beaufort County that were almost completely redacted — removing dates, names and all other information except for one email address.

The prices related to Freedom of Information Act requests are ambiguous and vary widely based on the nature of the request and the department from which the information is requested.

Beaufort County’s website states the costs for requests vary by department.

State law requires government agencies to charge only the hourly wage of the lowest paid staff employee capable of doing the work — the county’s website says this is typically $14 an hour — but there’s no metric specifically stating how much departments can charge.

‘Ridiculous fees’

On Sept. 19, The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette filed a FOIA request with the county for public records related to independent service contracts with former government employees.

Some of these records were already published for free on the county’s website, including a controversial $24,000 independent services contract for former Administrator Josh Gruber. A lawyer hired to investigate the contract found the county likely broke state law by not adhering to a “cooling off period” that prevents county officials, including Gruber, from working for the county for a year after leaving their job.

After The Packet filed the request, the records department estimated the search would cost $299.17. The newspaper agreed to pay the cost and put down a 25% deposit to start the search. On Nov. 1, the department emailed The Packet, “You paid a deposit of $74.79. The estimated total was $299.17. The actual total amount for this request is $655.66, as searching and compiling these records took considerably longer than originally estimated. Your balance due is $580.87.”

The finance department said it spent 30 hours at $21.50 per hour to search and compile the records.

When a reporter asked why the price of the request more than doubled the estimate, a worker from the records department said, “The fee is the fee.”

Councilman and Vice Chair of the Finance Committee Chris Hervochon said the way the county handles FOIA requests is a known issue and “needs to get better and needs to be more transparent.”

“We definitely need to do a better job of making government documents more accessible — especially online,” he said. “It’s something I’m hoping we will handle better going forward. We need to make sure everything’s online in a user-friendly way.”

Councilman Mike Covert said every citizen should have the right to access public information regardless of how much money they have and “just because you can’t afford it, doesn’t mean you can’t get it.” He said there needs to be a set price or metric for hourly rates for requests to prevent “ridiculous fees.”

S.C. law states governments may charge fees for searching, retrieving, redacting and copying records, but it is not mandatory. There is also a provision in the law allowing governments to provide records for free when the information is “primarily benefiting the general public.”

According to the S.C. Press Association guidebook, “News reports based on public documents almost always benefit the public.”

Other states, such as Kentucky, prevent governments from charging the public for staff time costs related to FOIA requests.

A reporter for The Island Packet covering local government and development, Kacen Bayless is a native of St. Louis, Missouri. In the past, he’s worked for St. Louis Magazine, the Columbia Missourian, KBIA and the Columbia Business Times. He graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism degree with an emphasis in Investigative Reporting from the University of Missouri in 2019.