Making government more open

Too often, politicians publicly proclaim their allegiance to principles of open government, then privately do all they can to keep constituents in the dark. Combatting that requires vigilance on the part of the people and those officials who still consider themselves public servants.

Though West Virginia already has a strong open records law, the Freedom of Information Act, it contains something of a loophole. It involves the code section relating to exemptions from documents required to be made available to the public.

While the section lists various documents not subject to the FOIA, it does not specifically state that other types of records cannot be withheld, perhaps through separate laws.

A bill introduced Tuesday in the House of Delegates would remedy that. It states there “is a presumption of public accessibility to all public records” except those listed specifically in the FOI law. That is an important distinction that should prevent a substantial amount of secrecy in government.

Sponsored by House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, the bill has several co-sponsors.

Another important change involves government agencies that refuse to provide documents sought by the public. Under the Armstead bill, public bodies denying such access would have to explain their reasons in writing to the Secretary of State’s office. Those explanations would be open for public review.

The original open records act states that, “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.”

Precisely. The Armstead bill reinforces that and strengthens the original law’s protections. Legislators should approve the bill – or be prepared to explain to West Virginians why they think they should “decide what is good for the people to know …”