Even as the piles of storm debris in and around the City of Aiken begin to be cleared at an accelerated rate, questions and criticism from city residents and elected officials alike are stacking up in their place.
The Aiken Standard on Thursday filed a Freedom of Information Act request, also known as an FOI, with Aiken City Manager Richard Pearce after the City of Aiken and other officials have given varied accounts about why S.C. Department of Transportation contractors were not picking up debris in the city limits until this week.
Some within the contractor community said the delay in the cleanup was largely caused because Pearce refused to allow the out-of-town disaster-recovery contractors to operate within the city limits. Pearce claims he never gave such a directive.
In an effort to learn what may have been said, and by whom, during the process, the Aiken Standard FOI request seeks the release of emails, text messages and written correspondence to and from Pearce and Aiken Public Services Director Tim Coakley.
The request asks for all such communications between Feb. 10, the day before Winter Storm Pax, to present.
A second group of FOI requests was also issued to SCDOT representatives Resident Maintenance Engineer Bobby Usry, Communications Director Pete Poore and Chief Engineer for Operations Leland Colvin. The Aiken Standard is asking these officials for all of their electronic and digital communications on the same topic.
When contacted for comment on the FOI requests, Aiken Mayor Fred Cavanaugh and City Council members Dick Dewar, Reggie Ebner, Lessie Price, Philip Merry, Steve Homoki and Gail Diggs all said the public has a right to know about public documents, and that business conducted by City officials must be made transparent.
Cavanaugh said he has no problem at all with an FOI request because all parties need to understand what went on between officials and SCDOT.
“If there is something there, then I guess you will find out,” Cavanaugh said. “We need to understand what’s going on, and I need to better understand what’s going on.”
Both Diggs and Price said the public has a right to know what’s going on within a government body representing Aiken residents.
“If City officials are conducting business and making decisions on behalf of our city, our citizens have a right to know the outcome and how it affects them,” Diggs said.
South Carolina law states that the public is entitled to public records – books, cards, tapes, recordings and other documents prepared, owned and used, in the possession of, or retained by a public body. This law includes emails.
Each recipient of the FOI request has 15 working days to respond and indicate whether they are complying or claiming an exception. If a public body does not respond within those 15 days, the request is considered granted.
Both the City and SCDOT received the requests and responded. The Aiken Standard asked that both entities waive fees for the document rights.
In an email, Janet Tucker, SCDOT’s FOIA officer, said SCDOT will not waive fees, but will respond in a timely manner as prescribed by law.
Pearce responded in an email that the City will work to gather the information requested at the least amount of cost.
Maayan Schechter is the local government reporter with Aiken Standard. Follow her on Twitter @MaayanSchechter.