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FOIA requests - how to help both parties

​People requesting public documents from cities and towns and the staff members that fulfill the requests under the Freedom of Information Act don't have to be at odds.

Communicating and cooperating on the basics of the FOIA request can bring benefits to both parties.

Local governments remind residents, lawyers, developers, reporters and others requesting public records to narrow the terms of their request, to give cities time to produce certain records, and at the front end, to make sure the city is the right source for the documents in question.

Cities and towns of all sizes encounter some of the same misconceptions and tendencies from individuals making FOIA requests.

"A lot of times, they just want to see something," said Camilla Pitman, clerk for the City of Greenville. "Sometimes they just want to come in and see the plats or they want to see the fire plan — whatever it is — so you're making it a little bit more amenable for them by clarifying the mode of document review, as well."

"I do have people walk in the door and say, 'Can I see the minutes from such-and-such?'" said Town of McCormick Clerk/Treasurer Sandy McKinney. Written requests, she said, usually pertain to financial particulars, such as details of the town's lawn maintenance contract and how much the town paid for officials to attend the Municipal Association's Annual Meeting.

For Sunshine Week each March, town council members in McCormick typically affirm their commitment to transparency by passing a resolution, which the local newspaper prints.

In at least one case, said McKinney, someone asked for information that would have been better sought elsewhere — a list of the utility companies that provide services in the area, company names that she said would have been housed at the S.C. Public Service Commission.

But McKinney said the biggest misconception is how much time a public body may take to comply with a request. One requestor asked the town to immediately produce five years' worth of specific documents.

"Many of them think they can walk in the door, and that since we're so small, I'm able to get it on the spot," she said.

No requirement to create a document
Bradford Cunningham, municipal attorney for the Town of Lexington, said the town's most commonly sought documents are meeting minutes, some type of development-related application that was made, or a building or site inspection report.

But, he said, it's important to note that the town is not required to create a document or tailor the response to a specific format.

"The only responsibility is to provide for inspection and copying of documents already in existence," said Cunningham.

In the City of Hartsville, City Clerk Sherron Skipper said when it comes to FOIA requests, the more specific the better.

"Blanket requests are too broad to even try to answer," she said. "In order to recover our expenses for producing records under FOIA, we have a fee schedule, and we provide an estimated cost to the requestor before we spend staff time researching and preparing information."

Hartsville waives fees in certain circumstances, as shown on the city's FOIA form. These include instances when another government entity is making the document request or for a project involving the city, such as a multi-county business park, agreements or contracts with the county, or other governmental agency.

FOIA requests from reporters
Pitman said although the news media accounts for only a few of the FOIA requests the city receives, it helps to maintain an open, mutually cooperative relationship with the press.

"The key is we've attempted to be as transparent as possible and provide the information up front," she said. "You want to have a relationship with your media. … It's locating that fine line of being able to converse and work with them, so they have a comfort level with you and you have a comfort level with them."

After all, said Pitman: "You are the government. They are the residents. That's what they're there for, to check up on you."