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$10,000 quite a roadblock to information

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THE ISSUE: Fee to obtain public records

OUR OPINION: Town owes citizens public access

to copying records at "reasonable" cost

The government watchdog group known as the S.C. Policy Council has raised some eyebrows with its website known as "The Nerve" and the investigative reports its has posted there.

The latest account by reporter Kevin Dietrich chronicles the story of a woman from Swansea trying to get public records from the town only to run into a major financial roadblock -- nearly $10,000 worth.

The town of Swansea wants the business owner to pay about $10,000 for copies of such basic information as the Lexington County community's financial statements, meeting minutes and town ordinances.

Alberta Wasden, a Swansea accountant, filed a Freedom of Information Act request in late July for the information, and also sought data on business licenses and paperwork related to grants or federal funding to Swansea.

Her request dates back as far as 2004 for some material, and to 2008 for other information.

Wasden, who is a citizen reporter for The Nerve, said her request was prompted by concerns over the handling of town finances and questions about how the town is being operated.

"I figured this was information they should be able to produce easily at a minimal cost," she said. "In many towns and counties, this is information that can be found online, in fact.

"I didn't ask for anything that isn't supposed to be public record," Wasden said.

Wasden said she was staggered when she received a response from the town of Swansea dated Aug. 9 and signed by Mayor Ray Spires that stated, "The total estimated cost to the town to comply with your FOIA request is approximately $9,996.25."

The town wrote that it based its figure on a 10-cent-per-page copying fee and a per-hour cost of $21.85 for researching and copying materials.

Swansea officials requested that Wasden provide a deposit of $4,916.25 before it would begin compiling the information requested.

"We ran everything by our attorney and that's what we came up with," Spires said. "You're looking at a lot of boxes of stuff. I'm not sure she really knows what she wants."

The state's FOI law provides for public access to information at what is defined as reasonable cost. The town is within its right to recover costs for supplying the documents, though there is no requirement that citizens by billed. In this case, the volume of records is large, but by any measure, a person being charged $10,000 for access to information that should be more readily available is prohibitive.

"Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money," said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association,. "That's an extremely high amount for a citizen to have to pay to get access to public records and it's a deterrent to accountability."

Of particular note is the $937 Swansea would bill Wasden for copying and providing the town's codes and ordinances. That is out of bounds. Copies of meeting minutes and town ordinances should be readily available to any citizen.

As Rogers told The Nerve, "I would think a person should be able to walk in and say I'd like to see the ordinances, and it should be in a big book somewhere. How can the public be expected to follow the law if they can't get a copy of it?"

The Swansea situation is another example of citizens meeting roadblocks in seeking access to information about government. Big city or small town, no matter. Transparency is important.

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