|By Bob Weaver|
Twenty-five-years ago West Virginia lawmakers passed the Freedom of Information
Act, a guarantee to citizens to gain access to government records. The law says any
West Virginia citizen is "entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs
of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials
Additionally, some agencies attempt to hold public meetings or conduct public
business behind closed doors, or misuse the "executive session" exclusion. These
actions are in direct violation of the public and open meeting laws.
Last October, reporters representing the Associated Press Managing Editors
Association visited all 55 counties, testing the compliance of county commissions,
county clerks, sheriff's departments and school superintendents with Freedom of
Most counties and agencies failed miserably to comply with the law, according to the
report. Lewis County was the only county that got an "A" and Braxton County fared the "worst" in the state.
WVU law professor Pat McKinley said "I think it is a very sad commentary on
government's responsibility to a very basic right. It should be 100% compliance."
Calhoun County Clerk Richard Kirby gave all reports and records for the Calhoun
Commission without a written FOIA request at the time of the visit. County
Superintendent of Schools Ron Blankenship was not in the office at the time, but
responded to the FOIA request by mailing a copy of his contract.
Blankenship said he did not provide his own personnel evaluation, which he says is
not allowed under the FOI. Sheriff Allen Parsons, according to the audit report, did not
respond to a FOIA request for the "most recent weeks police activity." Parsons, who
was not present when the inquiry was made, said his department does not keep a
One county School Superintendent, Jerry Linkinogger of Clay County, had a
background check run on the person requesting the information. Linkinogger said,
"It was unprofessional because those who requested the
document refused to state a reason." The state law does not require people who
want public information to identify themselves or to cite a reason for their
The Hur Herald, since going on-line in 1999, has experienced numerous problems
with obtaining public information, most recently with the West Virginia Division of
Forestry, although they have now supplied the information.
The biggest problem has been with the West Virginia State Police. They contend that
much of the information should not be available, using exclusionary clauses in the
FOIA act. After denying the FOIA request, the State Police politely advise if you are
not happy with the denial, you can pursue the matter in court, obtaining "injunctive
relief." Providing public information regarding their involvement in the simplest of
activities is difficult to obtain.
A wall of silence surrounds the agencies internal inquiries of their officers,
In 1994 the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that police incident reports are public
records, but the State Police obviously believe they are excluded.
In Ogden Newspapers vs. Williamstown, the justices said that such information as
names, dates, times
and places do not compromise an investigation and should be released to the
Locally, State Police have been unresponsive to information about the number (let
alone the names) of professional misconduct charges brought against troopers, the
types of complaints that have been filed, the number of complaints that have been
sustained, confirmation regarding a trooper under investigation, and a summary of
activity, calls or services delivered to the public.
They also failed to provide a summary of overtime hours given to local troopers, the
amount of trooper's salaries with overtime hours paid, the budget for the State Police
in the county, information regarding a drug arrest in July, 2001, information regarding
a wounding incident in June, 2001, among other inquiries They did respond to one
FOIA request relating to a memo sent to Calhoun Control by Sgt. John Bonazzo.
Agencies sometimes create problems by charging from .50 to $1.50 a page for
copies, presenting a huge file which requires considerable financial investment. A
single report obtained on a physician who was placed on probation by the State
Medical Board cost about $20 while another agency wanted to copy their entire
budget document at a cost of nearly $50.
Local State Police have reportedly stated they do not recognize internet newspapers,
but under the FOIA "concept," the information should be available to any citizen.
Sgt. David Garrett, supervisor of the Grantsville Detachment, has been uncooperative
with all requests directed toward him.
A summary of the FOI activities also stated that some public officials are not well
educated regarding the circumstances under which they are required to release