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.

1
Text Only
Editorials
  • Missing from the show

    If they attended, lawmakers would see strides made by TWV

    July 31, 2014

  • VA breakthrough

    Compromise shows Congress can put partisanship aside for the proper cause

    July 30, 2014

  • Doughnut holes

    Annexation benefits outweigh the taxes

    July 29, 2014

  • The play’s the thing

    TWV twins reveal local riches that can’t be found anywhere else

    July 27, 2014

  • Primary care

    DHHR program weans folks away from the ER

    July 24, 2014

  • Rain? What Rain?

    Community still enjoys auto fair despite uncooperative weather

    July 23, 2014

  • Do tell

    It’s hard to keep a secret in today’s here-a-camera, there-a-camera, everywhere-a-camera world. Whatever one does that is embarrassing is immediately posted on YouTube, Facebook or other social media of choice.

    July 22, 2014

  • Juvenile justice

    West Virginia nearly doubled the rate it sent youths to juvenile facilities from 1997 to 2011, in contrast to declining rates of youthful incarceration elsewhere in the United States.

    July 20, 2014

  • Thumbs — Saturday, July 19, 2014

    July 19, 2014

  • Do something

     Johnstown police have charged three men in the brutal murder early Sunday of a city academy student.

    July 18, 2014