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Public records bill advances, but with Senate opposition

A bill strengthening the public’s access to government records in South Carolina advanced May 2, but a senator’s opposition could again block passage this year.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance to the Senate floor legislation designed to force state and local governments, school districts, law enforcement and other public entities to respond more quickly to Freedom of Information Act requests and to bar them from charging excessive fees.

But Sen. Margie Bright Matthews is again objecting, saying she dislikes the idea of creating a division within the Administrative Law Court to settle disputes over requested information.

State economic advisers estimate it will cost $140,000 to hire a hearing officer and administrator.

“This element creates more government and spending,” said Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro, who tried unsuccessfully to take the provision out.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, said the change “would probably blow the bill up.”

“We have a tenuous truce” between government and media representatives, he said.

Similar bills have died repeatedly in the Senate over the last six years. The version advanced Tuesday is nearly identical to a compromise Bright Matthews blocked last year. The House passed it 93-0 in March. Just five days remain on this year’s legislative calendar.

“This thing’s been talked to death,” said South Carolina Press Association director Bill Rogers. “Let’s hope one senator doesn’t stand in the way of public access.”

Rogers said the hearing officer provision is key to the legislation, as it allows disputes to be resolved quickly and cheaply. Currently, the only way to force a public body to comply with the law is to sue in circuit court, which means hiring a lawyer and possibly waiting years for a decision. While the law allows offenders to be charged with a misdemeanor, no one’s ever been convicted.

Bright Matthews proposed keeping disputes in circuit courts through a “fast-tracked” system in which they’d be heard within 10 days. She initially argued it would be costly and time consuming for local officials to come to Columbia for disputes. When Campsen suggested satellite hearings that wouldn’t require travel, Bright Matthews still objected.

Rogers said he doesn’t think “there’s any possibility” circuit courts would fast-track public records lawsuits.

Currently, public bodies have 15 business days to respond to a FOIA request, but that can include simply acknowledging receipt. There’s no timeline on when they must actually provide the information.

The bill would require responding in 10 business days and give an additional month to provide the information if the request is granted — longer if the data is more than two years old. Either side could appeal to the Administrative Law Court for a decision on whether the data requested is covered by the law and must be released.

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