Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Updates to the Freedom of Information Act every local official needs to know

By Tiger Wells, government affairs liaison
More than 80 mayors and councilmembers met at ten locations around the state today for the Municipal Elected Officials Institute of Government session focusing on the Freedom of Information Act. Timing for this session is perfect because, last Friday, Gov. McMaster signed H3352 that makes substantive changes to FOIA.

Carolyn Sawyer (left) talks with Bill Taylor, field services manager for the Municipal Association, and Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, during the MEO Institute session on FOIA
The Municipal Association’s handbooks and website information related to FOIA are being updated to reflect these changes. We also got word from the S.C. Press Association that its Public Official's Guide to Compliance with the Freedom of Information Act is undergoing an update too. Until these updates are complete, local officials should refer to this summary to get the details on this new law.

Highlights of the impact of H3352 on local governments.

Legislators crafted H3352 to make all public bodies more responsive to records requests. The bill gives the public faster access to an official ruling when a public body either rejects or otherwise fails to satisfy a FOIA request. The bill also establishes timeframes for the public bodies receiving those requests.

One of the primary provisions of the new law outlines steps that will help public bodies in the stewardship of the public’s resources while granting new certainty to the requester about when records will be available.

For example, public bodies now have 10, rather than the previous 15, days to determine if it can respond to a FOIA request for records less than 24 months old. However, the bill extends the number of days from 15 to 20 that public bodies have to make this determination for records that are more than 24 months old.

Public bodies must now produce requested records within 30 days following its final determination about the availability of the records when they are less than two years old. Public bodies have 35 days for records older than two years.

These new response times also give a little more flexibility than before, since the law now allows the requesting party and public body to agree in writing to further timeline extensions.

Another provision focusing on good stewardship of public resources permits public bodies to deny and request circuit court review of FOIA requests that are overly broad, unduly burdensome, vague, repetitive or otherwise improper. These and other disputed requests would go to a circuit court for a determination. If the circuit court determines that the requested records are not subject to disclosure, the public body will benefit from a good faith finding that will act as a shield protecting it from paying the requesting party’s attorney’s fees and cost if the requester subsequently prevails on appeal.

This document includes details of all the changes resulting from H3352. Watch for notification of updated handbooks and website information in the weekly Uptown Update or check back to the Association’s website.

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