Bill would strengthen people’s right to know

Perhaps the most basic guarantee West Virginians have of our liberties, our financial well-being and the prospect of bright futures for our children is knowledge of what our government is doing. Without access to public documents, we remain in the dark – susceptible to being manipulated.

Decades ago the state Legislature enacted the Freedom of Information Act, designed to ensure we can obtain documents from both local and state governments. The FOIA was a strong mandate on behalf of we, the people.

Since then, the FOIA itself has been amended to lessen our access to public documents. And in a more secretive manner, lawmakers have approved scores of other exemptions in separate statutes.

Many documents once available to the public now can be withheld by officials who sometimes have good reasons, but often simply do not want the public to know what they are doing on matters ranging from law enforcement to how our money is spent.

A bill intended to curb abuse of the people’s right to know about government has been introduced during this session of the Legislature. Sponsored by Delegate Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, the bill’s key feature is a stipulation that, “There is a presumption of public accessibility to all public records, subject only to exemptions.”

That certainly sounds reassuring – but it is no more so than language in the existing FOIA statute. It states that “all persons are, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, 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.”

Still, Armstead’s bill should be enacted, if only as a specific reminder of the intent of the original FOIA law. As that section of state code makes clear, “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

Amen to that.