Lawmaker tags Denmark Tech the 'poster child' for FOIA changes

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News 12 at 6 o'clock / Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013

Denmark Tech (WRDW-TV)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WRDW) -- A News 12 special assignment is making waves through South Carolina.

On Monday, News 12 aired hidden camera videos where Denmark Technical College Public Safety Chief Judy Halmon broke the law by denying a reporter access to crime reports.

"They are the perfect example of how not to do it. They stonewall, they're defiant, they're arrogant. Shame on them!" exclaimed Rep. Bill Taylor of Aiken.

Taylor now calls Denmark Tech the "poster child" for his bill that aims to improve the public's access to information and records, like crime reports, in South Carolina. The Center for Public Integrity ranks South Carolina as the worst in the country when it comes to access to public information.

"The goal of this legislation is to make it easier and cheaper for citizens to get information from their government," he said.

During the last legislative session, a similar bill introduced by Taylor made it through the House by an overwhelming vote of 101-1. In the Senate, the bill died. An amendment to make public correspondence of legislators proved to be a poison pill. This time around, Taylor is more optimistic. He says that amendment is important, but he'd rather it be addressed separately from his bill.

"We have to understand in government -- we work for the people. They don't work for us," Taylor said.

The bill would make government bodies respond to requests for info faster, fees for copies as well as searching for and pulling documents would have to be publicized. Also, fees for copies would not exist for documents and records stored in an electronic form.

Most importantly, Taylor says his bill would would provide an easier avenue for punishing violators like Denmark Tech.

"There will be, for the first time ever, one expert, one court that's expert in FOI law," Taylor said. "They'll be able to rule quickly and inexpensively and hold people's feet to the fire."

Right now, when it comes to Denmark Tech, News 12 would have to file a civil suit in circuit court, which if done, would be a timely and expensive process.

Taylor says this would be even harder for a private citizens searching for information.

"Citizens, citizen activists, they know they need certain information, and this bill was designed for them. It's the people's bill," he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, the bill passed through the House Judiciary Committee. The bill now goes to the House floor. Taylor says committee members removed the legislative exemption in their meeting Tuesday.

Click here to read Rep. Taylor's bill.

Click here to watch the News 12 Special Assignment.

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