On Monday, the S.C. Department of Transportation announced that a survey of Charleston-area residents showed 72 percent of respondents were in favor of the department's proposed extension of Interstate 526. They did not, however, release the actual report.
The City Paper at first planned to run a short blog post based on the SCDOT press release, but then we got to thinking: What's the point of getting a neutral third party to conduct a survey if it's just going to get filtered through a public relations department? The plan to extend I-526 across Johns Island and James Island is not without controversy, especially among environmentalists. The Coastal Conservation League, a strident opponent of the SCDOT's plan, claims that the $489 million extension would shave a mere 36 seconds off the commute from West Ashley to James Island, and the route would cut through neighborhoods, the James Island County Park, and 17.4 acres of wetlands.
We needed to see the actual report, not just a press release. So we contacted the University of South Carolina Survey Research Laboratory, which had been commissioned to conduct the survey, to see if they'd send us a copy of the report. They directed us to David Kinard, a project manager for the SCDOT. Kinard said the department would be happy to share the report with us, but we'd have to go through the SCDOT's (ironically named) Freedom of Information department. He said they should be able to handle the request the next day — that is, today.
It took a phone call and two e-mails, but we finally got an answer today from Janet Tucker, the SCDOT's Freedom of Information Act officer. Tucker helpfully informed us that the SCDOT could take as long as 15 days to get back to us, and we replied that Kinard had told us we'd have the report today. Half an hour after she had given the department a 15-day window, she said she had just received the document, but there was a holdup: "The cost for research, reproduction, and materials is $9.50. We are unable to release the document electronically, so you will receive a copy by mail upon receipt of your payment either by check or credit card." This got us steaming mad.
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.
Here's the crux of the situation: Two days ago, a department of state government sent out a press release that seemed to indicate glowing approval of a controversial infrastructure project. That press release got echoed in media outlets across the state, none of which (to our knowledge) have actually seen the report from the USC researchers. By the time we get our hands on the report, it will be old news, and most people will remember the initial, favorable reports.
The public doesn't have the facts. We have the SCDOT's interpretation of the facts. Maybe it actually is a fair and unbiased interpretation, but we won't know that for sure until we get our hands on the report.
For all you armchair First Amendment scholars out there, we'll leave you with this darkly humorous paragraph from Tucker's e-mail:
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.
(For the record, the City Paper has no stockholders and is a free newspaper, but even that is beside the point.)