Obstructing the public’s right to know

With very rare exceptions, everything our local and state governments do in West Virginia ought to be public knowledge. It is not, and that should worry Mountain State residents who recognize that public officials can make mistakes and sometimes are not above doing things for their own purposes, not their constituents’ best interests.

Government officials often pay homage to the public’s right to know even as they are devising new ways to circumvent public records and documents laws. Among the most popular tactics these days are claiming release of certain documents would invade people’s privacy or that they would affect economic development efforts adversely.

Two developments last week should be of concern to those who think openness in government is vital.

First, the U.S. Public Interest Group released its annual report on public access to information about government spending. West Virginia received a “C” grade.

U.S. PIRG analysts focused on how easy it is for the public to obtain government spending information on websites. West Virginia’s overall score, 72 out of 100 possible points, isn’t even a “C” based on most grading scales.

The good news is that technical upgrades to state websites would resolve U.S. PIRG concerns. But the question is whether state officials really want to make it easy for the public to learn more.

Also last week, the state Supreme Court ruled local governments can charge the public hourly fees for locating documents sought under West Virginia’s open records law. Only one justice, Brent Benjamin, dissented from the decision.

Justices found the Legislature has approved such fees for state agencies. Therefore, local agencies should be able to do the same, members of the high court seem to have decided.

Legislators should monitor the issue closely. Unless we are sadly mistaken, some local and state officials will use the ruling to make it financially prohibitive for the public to obtain some documents. Simply telling clerks to drag their feet in the document location process, perhaps running up charges to the hundreds of dollars for finding a few pieces of paper, would do it.

Once that happens, West Virginians should demand – not ask, but insist – that legislators alter the law.

Mountain State residents also should insist on better Internet access to record on government spending. Whatever the claim for making it difficult to obtain public records, the result – more government behind closed doors – is unacceptable.