The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Editorials

April 20, 2014

Court ruling

Back in “the old days,” government bodies could get away with a lot of questionable actions because they weren’t held accountable by the public they served.

Thankfully, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed, for the express purpose of providing full and complete information to all citizens about the workings of government and the acts of those who represent them.

It is part of the fundamental philosophy of our form of government that government is the servant of the people, and not the master of them.

FOIA is intended not just for the use of the news media. It gives everyone the right to request documents from all state, county and municipal officers, governing bodies, agencies, departments, boards and commissions, and any other bodies created or primarily funded by state or local authority, unless their enabling statute specifically exempts them from its provisions.  

All it requires is “a reasonable fee for the costs of copying.”

And that has been officials’ “out” for providing such information.

Just last month, The Register-Herald requested a copy of a civil suit filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court. The clerk was happy to comply — if we paid $30 to have her fax it to us.

A reporter at another state newspaper was charged $175 by the same court for a copy of another suit that she was picking up in person.

Neither of those falls under the heading of “reasonable costs” in our thinking. Nor, we think, would it for almost any private citizen who makes similar requests.

Now comes the state Supreme Court making it even more difficult for FOIA to have any effectiveness.

The court ruled that government agencies can charge an hourly fee for the time it takes to find public documents — in addition to the copying fee.

Dissenting Justice Brent Benjamin wrote that this ruling is “a step backward” from the modern trend to make government more open and accessible.

We agree.

Many of the officials and bodies that are required to adhere to the FOIA statute find any and every way they can to wiggle out of providing the information requested.

The Supreme Court ruling only gives them further latitude in keeping public information out of the hands of the public.

Since FOIA began, the ways and means of saving documents, reports, receipts and other items has become streamlined in most offices. Retrieval of them is fairly simple as well. Just the touch of a button prints them out.

The court’s ruling will be especially hard on those with financial limitations. Before, they could go to the government office and view the records at no charge.

That will no longer be true, as Benjamin predicts most or all public bodies will charge a retrieval or search fee that many will have the inability to pay.

So much for government transparency.

Our government should be becoming more open, not less.

All of the justices, sans Benjamin, are responsible for tying the hands of all West Virginians who seek to know if their representatives are doing jobs in residents’ best interests.

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