Changes to FOIA law will empower public

An editorial from The Journal

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Freedom of Information Act requests can be met with anything from ambivalence to downright contempt from public agencies.

The stonewalls with which we are often met can be a turnoff from submitting further FOIA requests in the future – which, it can be reasonably conjectured, is exactly what many of these agencies want.

Recent changes to the law, however, are allowing more media outlets to gather the information citizens are entitled to know and that hold public officials responsible for their actions.

House Bill 2636 was introduced simply to close off FOIA requests related to concealed carry permits. And while that aspect of public record was, in fact, shut down, much more about what is “public record” and how FOIAs should be handled was amended to the media’s advantage.

Notably, the bill removed the ability of agencies to charge search and/or retrieval fees as part of costs associated with providing records. This is one method agencies can use to stonewall requests – saying it will cost hundreds or thousands of dollars in labor – that is no longer an option.

In addition, public record was redefined to include information that has “content or context” relating to the conduct of public business. This means that correspondence that in the past could have been denied as “unrelated” to official business can now also be uncovered by a FOIA – allowing media the potential to uncover even more impropriety or collusion that otherwise may have been swept under the rug.

And effective Jan. 1, agencies that receive FOIA requests will be required to report details of those requests to the Secretary of State’s office to allow for the creation of an electronic database. The publicly available database will list the outcome of each request and, if it was denied, which exemption (Section 29B-1-4 of the Code lists 20, the last of which is the new concealed carry exemption) was used. The database will also list how long it took to fulfill the request and how much was charged for reproduction of the records.

The idea is that if agencies are being held responsible for what they’re denying and why, there will be less abuse of the system and more information of value to citizens will be disseminated.

This level of publicity regarding how FOIA requests are handled, along with the dropping of retrieval fees, should empower more local media agencies to submit FOIA requests. Holding public officials accountable and keeping malfeasance in check is why the Fourth Estate exists in the first place. In many ways, HB2636 is giving more of that power back.

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