A LITTLE MORE PUBLIC INFORMATION SUNSHINE, MAYBE

(04/06/2015)

By Bob Weaver

West Virginia public agencies won’t be able to charge fees for searching and compiling public records, and they won’t be able to withhold as many documents from the public, under a bill just signed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Many state agencies, following a court ruling, began charging exorbitant hourly fees to research and retrieve public documents.

An NRA sponsored bill was also made law, and will allow the names of people who have concealed weapons permits to be kept secret, names that have been published in many West Virginia newspapers over the years.

The new law still allows public officials to charge fees for copying records — just not for searching for and compiling them.

Some state agencies had started charging $25 to to $200 an hour added to the cost of a FOIA request.

Regionally, Glenville State College's board passed a $25 an hour research fee for public information, and the Wirt County Board of Education adopted hourly fees for research.

The Hur Herald, requesting the number of Hidden Promise Scholarships issued to Calhoun students from Glenville State, was meet with a $25 per hour fee request.

Following a complaint regarding the fee, the college changed its mind and provided the information.

There now appears more openness regarding government emails.

The WV Supreme Court refused to release emails traded by then-Justice Elliott “Spike” Maynard and then-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship when Massey had several cases pending before the court.

The Associated Press sued to force the court to release the emails.

In a 4-1 decision, the court refused.

Justice Robin Davis wrote the majority opinion and said that the “content” of an email from a public official should be the only consideration as to whether the email is a public record.

Davis wrote that, for the emails to be released, legislators would have to do what they just did — rewrite the law to include context in the definition of a public record.

The new law also defines public records as those “received and prepared” by a government body.

In the past, public officials in West Virginia have tried to circumvent FOIA by arguing that they could keep documents created by consultants or outside groups secret, according to Eric Eyre of the Charleston Gazette.

In West Virginia, some agencies have consistently abused the FOIA laws, using clauses in the FOIA law to be exempted.

In an Associated Press study done in West Virginia's 55 counties, they gave an overall "F" to the West Virginia State Police, mostly related to internal investigations of their own officers, and to school systems for lack of disclosure.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed by the Charleston Gazette against the WV State Police, but so far there appears to be few results.

Troubling is the WV Supreme Courts new public information computer system, which requires anyone to travel to a magistrate's office or county Circuit Clerk's office to obtain public information files.

While the system is "user friendly" to obtain a single case, with no electronic copying allowed, it is a burdensome system to compile lists of cases or court decisions.


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