(01/29/2002)
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 and employees."

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 Information requests.

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 daily log.

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 request.

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, green-on-green investigations.

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 public.

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 information.


Hur Herald from Sunny Cal
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