The Palmetto Insider

The blog of the South Carolina Policy Council

North Myrtle Beach Fees May Violate State Law

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Documents released by North Myrtle Beach under the state Freedom of Information Act concede the city failed to ask whether its new policy of charging fees for public information is excessive under state law.

North Myrtle Beach officials began charging citizens for copies of public records last month without first determining whether the fees are permissible under state law, according to documents obtained by the Policy Council via the state Freedom of Information Act this week.

Public Information Officer Nicole Aiello stated the city “does not possess the requested document” in response to the Policy Council’s request for paperwork explaining how the city calculated its fees. State law prohibits public bodies from charging more than the “actual cost” of producing records, which since the city concedes it never determined raises the question whether the city’s fees exceed the amount allowed by law.

Without any documentation to justify actual costs, fees imposed by the city appear arbitrary and would violate state law if they are in fact excessive, said Columbia attorney Jay Bender.

“To have charges pulled out of the air reinforces the notion that citizens are discouraged from seeking information,” said Bender.

As of July 6, North Myrtle Beach began charging 25 cents per page for copies, 35 cents per page for color copies and a dollar per page for oversized documents that exceed 10 pages. Citizens are also subject to a $25 charge per hour for any request that takes more than 15 minutes to fulfill. The city manager has authority to waive these fees at his discretion.

City Manager John Smithson previously said the intent of the policy is to discourage broad requests by citizens who seek information “just to have it” without having a specific question. The city plans to apply fees selectively when a request would take a large amount of time, according to Smithson.

Taxpayers already pay the $50,000 annual salary of a city employee devoted to making public records available, yet Smithson justified charging citizens again due to what he described as a significant increase in information requests related to an April wildfire. That fire burned more than 100 homes during a week-long blaze and has sparked intense scrutiny of decisions made by city officials.

The city produced copies of 15 Freedom of Information Act requests it claims are related to the wildfire. The documents mostly request what appear to be nearly identical information including telephone logs as well as copies of videos, photographs and audio recordings of city communications that once copied could seemingly be duplicated multiple times with minimal effort.

Smithson said North Myrtle Beach has no plans to put its public records online, as nearly a dozen South Carolina municipalities have voluntarily done during the past year. Making information freely available online serves the public while also reducing work for government employees, according to Anderson County Council Chairman Eddie Moore.

Anderson County became the state’s first county to post its financial records online in March. Moore said once citizens can obtain documents online they no longer need to call government officials with requests. This generates significant time savings for staff while greatly improving transparency. It’s also virtually cost free.

“We just exported the reports we are already keeping and posted it to the county website. Putting it online didn’t cost a dime,” said Moore.


Written by Bryan Cox

August 6, 2009 at 7:46 pm

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