County bills Voice $309 for duplicate FOI request

COLUMBIA – It will cost at least $309 just to look for records showing charges to a Richland County councilwoman’s publicly funded credit card.

Making copies will cost even more.

“Richland County has determined it will cost approximately $309.89 to search for non-exempt documents responsive to your request,” the county said in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Voice.

Before proceeding, the county required a 25 percent deposit.

“If you decide to proceed with your request, as written or as amended, please send an advance non-refundable deposit of $77.47 (twenty-five percent of the total cost),” the response stated. “You will be notified of the balance due which must be paid at the time of the production of documents.”

Richland County also took 12 business days to provide its response, above the legal limit, placing the county at odds with recent changes in state law designed to reduce search and copy costs.

The cost estimate is also several times higher than virtually identical documents provided to another media organization, also a violation of the law.

“Fees charged by a public body must be uniform for copies of the same record or document,” the law states.

“The public is entitled to the prompt release of how their money is being spent,” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, of which The Voice is a member.

“To miss a deadline and then overcharge says something about [the county’s] willingness to provide public information,” Rogers said.

In 2017, the state legislature adopted Act 67, which limits government agencies to charging “reasonable fees not to exceed the actual cost of the search, retrieval, and redaction of records.”

Such fees “shall not exceed the prorated hourly salary of the lowest paid employee capable of carrying out the request,” the law continues. “The records must be furnished at the lowest possible cost to the person requesting the records.”

Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, a cosponsor of Act 67, said it’s unfortunate that some government agencies still don’t provide public records at the lowest possible cost.

“They need to do the right thing every time“,” Taylor said. “Your request seems to be reasonable since they already provide it (the records) to others.”

Richland County Interim Administrator Edward Gomeau couldn’t be reached for comment.

It also took Richland County 12 business days, not counting Veterans Day, to provide a written response to The Voice’s public information request.

State law requires no more than 10 business days. It used to be 15 business days, but Act 67 also lowered the wait time.

The Voice submitted its request to Richland County on Oct. 29, but received the records instead courtesy of The State newspaper, which shared the documents the very next day.

The Voice’s FOIA request sought virtually the same records requested by The State.

“I would like to request the same Richland County Council member financial records provided to The State newspaper for the recent story about council member spending,” the FOIA request stated.

“Since these records have already been researched, and then provided to another media outlet, my hope was to obtain these records fairly quickly,” the request continued.