Freedom of Information Act requests come in to city hall for everything from crime reports to building permits. They come from the media, law firms and the general public. Typically, the request lands on the desk of a public information officer, town clerk or city attorney.
Fulfilling a Freedom of Information Act request can be a time-consuming task, but the staff responsible for replying to the requests have the same advice: take all of the FOIA requests seriously and respond to each one promptly.
Justin Lee Campbell is the community relations specialist for the City of Simpsonville.
Photo: City of Simpsonville
"One lesson that I've learned from fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests is starting the process of fulfilling them as soon as possible," said Justin Lee Campbell, community relations specialist for the City of Simpsonville. "Given that I have a myriad of other job duties and responsibilities, and that I can't predict how many other future requests I'll receive, addressing requests early by researching, consulting with staff or asking follow-up questions right away is paramount to completing requests in a timely manner."
In 2017, South Carolina set a shorter deadline for public bodies to respond after receiving the request. Mark Kruea, public information director for the City of Myrtle Beach, said the timeline makes it important for municipalities to follow a standardized process for requests.
"With a shorter response clock — 10 working days in most cases — you can't afford to let even one day go by," Kruea said. "Likewise, keeping track of the due date for a FOIA request is important. Share that information when you send out the request so that everyone knows the deadline for responding. It still can be a challenge to get details and documents back in a timely manner, but having a team relationship is vital."
Some municipalities have website forms to allow people to file FOIA requests electronically. Public information departments typically act as a clearinghouse to determine if the request is for something that can be provided, to locate the information and to take the necessary steps to fulfill the request.
"A lack of organization and standardization can lead to bad record keeping and confusion," Campbell said. "The process doesn't have to be complicated, though: read the request, research it before responding if needed, respond with a memo, fulfill the request, request payment if needed, and provide the requested information with a memo and paperwork closing out the request, such as a copy of the internal-use-only form that details the process for fulfilling it. If the process is going to be standardized, I recommend making all FOIA requests flow through one person to avoid confusion, create continuity and prevent redundant work."
Beverly Coleman has worked for the City of Clemson for 20 years. She serves as the city clerk, business license officer and records manager. She also handles all FOIA requests. When she receives a request, she notifies the department where those particular records are housed and asks how long it will take to respond to the request. She also lets the person who filed the FOIA request know the cost to fulfill the request and requires a deposit to be paid before the work is completed.
Beverly Coleman serves as the City of Clemson's city clerk, business license officer and records manager. Photo: City of Clemson.
"Until four or five years ago we received maybe three FOIA requests a year. Now, we receive about five FOIA requests a month," Coleman said. "When the requests became more frequent and FOIA rules changed, we updated our policy, created a request form [and] put procedures in place so that all departments know how to handle them. We typically turn them around quickly. I have a FOIA file both digitally and physically, and monitor or track the requests to make sure they are completed."
The number of FOIA requests is even higher in larger cities. The City of Myrtle Beach, for example, receives about 400 FOIA requests each year, and that number does not include requests going directly to the police department. Kruea said most requests are for "run-of-the-mill documents," such as certificates of occupancy, building permits, planning and zoning files, and travel reports for city council members, while the police department receives a number of requests for surveillance camera footage.
"When a request comes in, we study it for details and then forward the request via email to any department likely to have responsive documents. We generally give a 'must respond by' time, in keeping with the schedules set forth in the FOIA. The departments will then send their responsive materials, if any, back to [the] Public Information [Department], and we will send out the official answer to the request," he said.
In Simpsonville, 27% of requests are for police department incident reports and records, while 24% are for permits and licenses, Campbell said. Requests from the news media make up just 15% of requests, with most inquiries coming from the general public and law firms.
The Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies to create a fee schedule for fulfilling requests and post it online.
"If a request appears to be labor-intensive or likely will involve a large number of files, we alert the requestor that we will calculate the actual hourly cost of the staff time involved, along with a per-page cost, and ask for a deposit of 25%, as allowed under the SC FOIA. If we send documents out to be copied, we charge the actual cost of that third-party service," Kruea said.
Responding to the public's questions takes time, but it is a responsibility that municipal staffers understand and take seriously.
"We need to remember that we fulfill FOIA requests not only because the law requires us to do so; more importantly, we fulfill FOIA requests because transparency is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy because transparency allows for accountability," said Justin Lee Campbell of Simpsonville. "The public and media are, indeed, entitled to public records because government and elected officials are accountable to the public. If you process FOIA requests, you're the gatekeeper to information, and therefore it is your responsibility to ensure access to that information so that we have an informed public."