Bill morphs into better access to government

An editorial from The Dominion Post

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — We have issues with a lot of bills introduced in the state Legislature this year.

Then again, there are some that we do support.

But we have met very few pieces of legislation throughout the years that we just cannot make up our minds about.

One measure that fits that description is House Bill 2636.

Admittedly, there’s plenty we didn’t like about this bill when we first met it, and still don’t like almost a month after it was introduced.

HB 2636 would exempt concealed-carry weapons permits from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

And it’s not that it’s just another restriction on the public’s right to know, though that doesn’t help matters.

Nor were we really bothered that much about possibly being unable in the future to identify an individual gun owner with a conceal-carry permit.

What really grated on us about this bill is that this proposal would prohibit even allowing for the most basic information about conceal-carry permits?

* How many permits are on the books across the state?

* Did their numbers increase or decline in a certain year or period?

* How much revenue did these permits generate in a particular county or statewide?

* Are these permits more prevalent in one region of the state or spike because of a particular crime?

Of course, we could go on. However, this exemption appears all but moot now as a result of another bill that allows state residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit.

That legislation, Senate Bill 347, passed out of the state Senate on a 32-2 vote Friday and is locked and loaded for passage in the House of Delegates within days.

Of course, we unequivocally reject SB 347 and have made that clear before.

But back to HB 2636. This bill has been seriously revised to include a host of provisions we welcome.

* It prohibits government agencies from charging manhour costs for producing documents via a FOIA request. The only charge is for the actual cost of copying them. That overturns a state Supreme Court ruling in 2014.

* All FOIA requests will be turned over to the secretary of state’s office, which will create and maintain a publicly accessible database.

* It changes the exemption for internal memoranda. It does maintain exemptions for documents from outside that are part of the deliberative process. But whatever is generated after a decision is subject to FOIA.

These are all major changes to the state’s FOIA law and should help significantly aid the public’s right to know.

The transformation of this bill is almost unique. It has morphed from another exemption to further access.

That’s a rare event in government and we could certainly come to like that idea.

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