Sunshine Week, a national recognition of open and transparent government, was last week. Still, as we said Sunday, just because the official week came to a close is no reason to be silent on related matters.
Readers might be familiar with legislation that sputtered and stalled after takeoff last year, only to be reintroduced by its author, Aiken Rep. Bill Taylor, this year. And readers might also be familiar with the fact the legislation is once again sputtering as it circles the Statehouse. With any luck, it will land safely and not, as it did last year, crash and burn.
That said, however, there is some information that surfaced last week, information that could serve to yet again stall Taylor's bill. The bill, designed to give more strength to the state's existing Freedom of Information Act by reducing the amount of time it takes for public bodies to respond to requests for public information and significantly reduce records-gathering costs often associated with FOIA requests, is clearly one that helps keep public bodies and their actions in the light.
As the House is slated to begin debate on Taylor's bill today, information it and the rest of the legislature received from the state Department of Archives and History's director, Eric Emerson, is disheartening to those who are pushing for its passage.
At issue is the cost of maintaining records. Republican Lexington state Rep. Rick Quinn is again pushing to alter Taylor's legislation, suggesting the bill remove a current exemption within the state's sunshine law. That exemption applies to legislators' emails, currently not deemed public record. There is great debate on the issue, with some contending all legislators' emails should be public while many lawmakers contend their constituents have, or should have, an expectation of privacy regarding their communications with their representatives.
Quinn's push to remove lawmakers' exemption from the law is viewed by many as a means to immediately bring down the legislation as it is expected a majority of lawmakers will not support Taylor's measure if their emails are no longer exempted.
This is where Emerson comes in. Last week, The State reported the cost to archive the additional materials could run as much as $1 million. Emerson said his price tag "is based on his prediction that storing legislative records would force his agency to manage 2 1/2 times the number of public records that it now manages," The State's March 11 story said. Emerson anticipates a need for five new employees, security upgrades and archival supplies and equipment to handle the materials generated by the 170 members of the General Assembly.
This price tag is causing some lawmakers to balk at the legislation while others instead balk at Emerson's estimate and question its accuracy.
Would preserving lawmakers' vast emails for historical purposes be good? Yes. Certainly, the content could be construed as having historical value, but as media law attorney Jay Bender shared with The State's reporter, the main issue is less about sending such records to Archives and more about doing something now to establish more open government in the state.
Bender and some lawmakers have doubts about the cost estimate. State Rep. Weston Newton, a Republican from Beaufort, posed this question to The State's reporter: "Are these the real costs? Or is this just a doomsday scenario?" Bender also expressed doubt about the cost estimate.
A cynic might construe this latest issue as a well-devised effort to put Taylor's legislation into a tailspin and bring it down, but for argument's sake, let's at least believe the head of state Archives is correct in asserting, if the legislation that passes removes the lawmaker email exemption, his department will be responsible for those records. And let's assume doing so would not come without added cost.
Now, let's take a more level-headed approach to the matter. Lawmakers should simply pass Taylor's well-written bill and toss Quinn's addendum aside. For now. Doing so will quickly do what Taylor and other lawmakers have sought to do for nearly two years, which is provide the public quicker, less expensive access to records, as well as a more streamlined approach to FOIA debate resolution through local magistrates as opposed to costly and drawn-out courtroom proceedings.
Lawmakers can later take up the matter of opening legislators' emails to the public. That can be a step taken on another day. Frankly, it should be explored, as should a more thought-out process for determining how those records are stored, for how long and by whom.
But let's reserve another day for debate on that matter and opt for a day of sunshine now by making Taylor's bill law.