Thursday, April 5, 2012

When is public information not public?

Today, it's Summerville; tomorrow, South Carolina.

The Post & Courier reports that in Summerville, the rules about public information appear to be different from the rules elsewhere in the state and nation.

I reckon we can expect more of this bobbing and weaving as Governor Nikki Haley pushes for a statewide school bus privatization plan. As she seems to define transparency, we'll all have free and open access to absolutely nothing.

Three people who asked for a copy of the Durham School Services bus contract from Dorchester District 2 schools were told it would cost $150 — an apparent violation of the state Freedom of Information law.

The requests came over the last few weeks as Teamsters union representatives try to organize bus drivers in the district.

District officials say the fee quote is policy. One of the requesters said it was an attempt to withhold information.

A South Carolina Press Association official called the fee quote “smoke.”

Durham School Services Regional Manager Dave Brabender confirmed that “there’s an organizing event going on, and there will be a vote in a couple of weeks.”

Allyson Duke, the district’s chief financial officer, said the $150 fee was quoted for copying a 22-page document because that fee is called for under a district “commercial use” policy, and staff understood the contract was requested for the Teamsters.

One hundred fifty dollars to copy a 22-page document? That's $6.82 per page. I knew it was expensive to live in Summerville, but this seems a little exorbitant.

“No, no. There’s no specification for that in the law. District policy does not trump state law. I think there’s smoke there,” said Bill Rogers, S.C. Press Association executive director.

The requesters are state residents and are treated the same as anyone else under the law, he said. “Above all, financial contracts are open. They should be available at minimal cost,” Rogers said.

Two of the requesters were a bus driver in the district and a bus driver from another district who is a union representative. They were told they could view the contract without charge.

Asked to assist by the Teamsters, activist Rob Groce of Knightsville pushed the district on the fee, and the contract was copied for him for $5.

Groce said he was told at first that it would take two weeks to produce the copy.

Okay, they knocked the price down from $150 to five bucks, but then said it would take two weeks? This is a request for a photocopy; it wouldn't take two weeks to typeset the entire 22 pages by hand, letter by letter, and print it using an old Ben Franklin press.

Are there no high-speed photocopiers in all of Dorchester County?

It boggles the mind, how difficult it seems to be to get public information.

“We didn’t deny anybody. We do have to have policies in place” to compensate for employees’ time and protect taxpayers’ dollars, Duke said.

She said she would speak with the district’s attorney about whether the commercial use fee is proper.

“The fact that I had to go through such rigamarole to get information ... it’s my opinion she was deliberately trying to withhold information where my tax dollars go, and I don’t appreciate that,” Groce said.

Duke said that was not true.

The district outsourced its bus services to Durham at the beginning of the school year.

The contract copies were requested because of drivers’ concerns that they are paid less per hour to drive to extracurricular events than they are to drive routes, Groce said.

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