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New law has public bodies evaluating FOIA charges

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — Some local governments in the region will have to stop their practice of billing people for retrieving public documents they request.

House Bill 2636, signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, prohibits government agencies from charging an hourly fee to recover the costs associated with searching for the documents.

They can still charge for making copies of the records, under the law.

“This makes it codified in law that they cannot charge for labor,” said Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association. “Government can’t use the high price to reduce the number of requests.”

Smith said various public agencies have been charging anywhere from $25 an hour to a flat fee of $200 for looking up records he has requested.

Who is monitoring that the agencies are spending as much time researching the material as they claim? Smith posed.

“They set the price and they determined how long it would take,” he said. “They were using that cost as a restrictive measure.”

Last April, the state Supreme Court ruled that government agencies can charge citizens a fee for the time it takes to find documents under the open records law.

The high court’s decision overturned a lower court’s ruling.

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision, Weston City Council passed an ordinance requiring people making records requests to pay a fee equivalent to the rate of pay of the employee doing the search and records production.

Weston Mayor Julia Spelsberg said she will ask the city’s attorney to look into the new law.

“I think we’ll have to vote on making the appropriate changes to it,” Spelsberg said.

Buckhannon charges $25 an hour for any research involved in responding to an open records request, Assistant City Clerk Amberle Jenkins said.

That policy has been in place for a couple of years, Jenkins said.

The city’s attorney will probably check into the new law…

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