Two years after signing into law a measure that made major changes to the state’s open records policy — including requiring a fee schedule to let people know the costs of producing records — just 13 out of 35 government agencies have done so.
That was among the findings made public on Thursday by Gov. Henry McMaster and state Inspector General Brian Lamkin, who surveyed the departments as part of a Freedom of Information Act compliance check.
In May 2017, McMaster signed H. 3352, which set new parameters including:
• Requiring public bodies to develop — and post online — fee schedules for fulfillment of FOIA requests, including costs of search, retrieval, redaction and copying of records
• Limiting the rate a public entity could charge not to exceed the pro-rated hourly wage of an agency’s lowest paid employee
• Reduction from 15 days to 10 days for an agency to acknowledge the existence of records and anticipated processing costs
• Capping a deposit of no more than 25% for the reproduction of records
“The purpose of the Open Records Act is to provide for transparency, accountability and open records in all government offices from the municipal level, statewide and otherwise. And this is to enable people to understand what’s going on with their government and why,” McMaster said on Thursday. “We want to lead the country in having the most informed public that we can.”
Lamkin and his staff analyzed information from 35 agencies, including all 18 at the Cabinet level, all four-year public universities and every statewide elected office.
They found that 37% of them provided a comprehensive fee scheduled as outlined by H. 3352, with five agencies having outdates FOIA policies, written between 2002 and 2016.
Agency response times were much better, the OIG reported, with 90% of them indicating FOIA requests were received in writing and logged.
“The purpose of this study really was about trying to understand where the executive branch happened to be two years after the signing of the act,” Lamkin said.
He also said establishing uniform or clearly defined fee schedules was important to build public trust and create efficiencies within the information-gathering system.
“If they had that information going in, it could also help scoping down the request and tailoring it to where it’s more manageable,” Lamkin said. “How much is it going to cost, can I tell that on the front end? And if I can, then I’m fine but if I can’t, my request can’t be tailored how it should be.”
By year’s end, McMaster said he wants all agencies subject to the OIG survey to present a report confirming their adherence to FOIA laws or steps being taken to satisfy it.
That’s not all he wanted.
“I’d also take this opportunity to encourage the General Assembly to join the rest of the government offices. Al the government offices except those in the General Assembly must comply with the open records law under our current law. That is an error that should be corrected. It is important that people in South Carolina have confidence to what is going on in the government and the best way for them to be able to make up their own minds is to have access to the records,” McMaster said. “The legislature rightly expects transparency and accountability from state agencies and other, and the legislature should be subject to and comply with these laws.”