The Information Fee - Coming This Monday
EDITORIAL - When Your Freedom Isn’t Free
If you want to know anything from the City of Clinton - and you want to use existing state law to find out - just fill out a form and attach $3.
Effective Sept. 11th, that’s your cost for freedom of information.
In the government’s on-going campaign to get a fee from every single human activity - business fees, marriage fees, fishing fees, parking fees - the list is endless - the latest is the absolutely unnecessary, open-ended fee for the Freedom of Information.
The Information Fee, let’s call it. The Clinton City Council has the opportunity Sept. 10 to say, “You know what, enough is enough. Our government doesn’t have to bilk the taxpayers for another fee just because we can.” They will choose not to make that statement.
The Consequence - Every time you or your neighbor wants to file a FOIA, you pay $3 - and that $3 goes directly to the employee within the City of Clinton that you already pay with your tax dollars, who looks it up and transmits it back to the requester. Then, if you want a copy, it’s 20 cents per page. If the City even suspects it’s going to take more than the bare minimum of time - and in the age of computers why should it? - then they will tell you how much MORE to pay.
Remember, $3 is your minimum cost to obtain your city’s information.
The natural question is, Why Now? Is it just a coincidence that the city’s ill-advised decision to eliminate the Department of Public Safety generated more than the usual requests for information? It is only natural, then, that someone in the city would say, “Since this is such a popular thing, let’s make some money off it.”
Copies of established city ordinances are exempt, of course. They’re all on computers. But if you want that city policy that lets you fill up your swimming pool from a fire hydrant after paying - you guess it - a fee, start out with a $3 Information Fee. A group of private citizens recently used the SC Freedom of Information Act to shake loose the credit card records of Laurens County employees. The Clinton City Manager used the SC FOIA to gain access to all fire training records for the former Clinton Department of Public Safety. They all paid fees, didn’t they?
The State Legislature allows these fees, and municipalities have been anxious to feed at the trough of free money. Rich governments can charge more - their citizens can afford it, after all - and the poor governments should charge less, because their people are impoverished. Funny how life never seems to work out that way.
Look, we get it. The day after Clinton City Council voted not to have Public Safety, we made requests of them under the SC Freedom of Information Act. We did not pay $3. We did not have to because the city didn’t have this policy in place at the time (notice, that’s policy; not ordinance - ordinance requires two readings and affirmative votes by a majority of council members both times). We annoyed them - we get that. But, believe this if nothing else, the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act is not our law, it is your law.
Don’t believe it? Take it from a former South Carolina Attorney General - “Simply stated, we must construe the FOIA liberally to carry out its intent that citizens obtain public information at the least cost, inconvenience or delay. Consistent with this mandate, my Office has adopted the following guiding principles construing the FOIA:
“When in doubt, disclose.
“When in doubt, post the meeting.
“When in doubt, open the meeting.
“When in doubt, release the document. ...
“It is vital that we appreciate the reality that public service requires officials and bodies relinquish privacy in official communications (our insert here: including e-mail). It is the price each of us in public service pays for the public interest.” - Charlie Condon
While some court rulings have weakened the SC FOIA, we believe it to be a document worth fighting for. Imposing an Information Fee in Clinton follows in the precedent that will be replicated by every body politic in South Carolina, some will consider $3 much too low. So, communities of South Carolina, just be aware - The Information Fee is coming your way. Next week, we will start collecting ours.