Thursday, September 13, 2012

SCDOT - calling George Orwell

You're got to love bureaucrats' reasoning, especially those at the S.C. Transportation Department and even more especially those in charge of making information available to the public.

Read, for instance, this story by one of my former students outlining the twisted trail he's going through to try to get the actual copy of a survey report the department is touting as showing public support for a controversial highway project near Charleston.

First is the absurdity that the document, in 2012, isn't available in electronic format. I didn't know they were still using monks at the University of South Carolina's Survey Research Laboratory to produce reports (no knock on the lab - I suspect it provided, or could provide, a Word doc or similarly formatted document to SCDOT).

But then there is this rather bizarre reasoning from the Transportation Department's FOI officer, Janet Tucker, about why it can't provide a copy for free in the public interest:


If you are requesting a waiver of costs for the documents, SCDOT respectfully declines your request. The FOI Act allows SCDOT to waive such costs where it determines that the waiver is "in the public interest because furnishing the information can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public.” While we recognize that your newspaper seeks to serve the public interest by providing news, this primarily benefits your own customers and your stockholders as opposed to the general public. In addition, because you are able to recoup your cost of doing business by the sale of newspapers, we do not believe it is appropriate for the State of South Carolina to underwrite the cost of the production of this information for you.
George Orwell couldn't have phrased it better. The retort from the paper:
Yeah, we can pay the $9.50, but it's a matter of principle. If the SCDOT has an employee whose job is to handle Freedom of Information requests, why is her research not already paid for by taxes?
Furthermore, why in the hell would a government agency in 2012 be unable to send a document electronically? We asked for a reason, but she has not replied.

So what exactly are the criteria for being in the public interest? Care to share, Ms. Tucker? Maybe even post them on your website? Is being a nonprofit good enough? (Note to The Nerve, maybe you should request a copy too and see what the reaction is? Or the Statehouse Report - oh, wait, it has ads now.) Or must you have monks on the staff ...

Update 9/14: The paper got the report electronically - Tucker said there was a misunderstanding over what DOT thought the reporter wanted - but was charged $9.50. Pocket change, really. But it does raise the question of a blanket base charge of $7.50 plus copying costs for a document transmitted electronically and that probably was sent electronically to the agency (copying costs for that?).

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