Keep records open to public

Sunshine Week
Sunshine Week

Editor’s note: Sunshine Week, March 16-22, 2014, was a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

An editorial from the Weirton Daily Times

WEIRTON, W.Va. — Many public officials have decided just saying no to requests for government documents is not the best way to keep them secret. Indirect assaults on the public’s right to know are better, they believe. That way they cannot be accused of disobeying freedom of information laws.

As thoughtful Americans were pondering the observance of Sunshine Week during the past few days, West Virginia Supreme Court members were considering an important freedom of information case. It goes to the heart of one method used to keep the public from obtaining documents to which it is entitled under state law.

Local and state officials have known for years that they are permitted to charge the public reasonable fees, usually a few cents per page, for providing copies of government documents. But in 2012, officials in Nitro, near Charleston, decided to up the ante. They told a couple who had filed a Freedom of Information Act request that the city would charge them $25 an hour for looking up the documents.

Clearly, an open-ended search fee such as that in Nitro is an indirect assault on the public’s right to know. Many West Virginians seeking access to government documents would abandon their quests upon being told they were liable for $25 an hour, or some other amount, in fees for a search. That is especially true given the fact officials conducting the search would have every incentive to make it a long, costly one.

Nowhere in the state Freedom of Information Act is there a provision for government officials to charge search fees for finding documents. The only charge authorized is that those requesting records can be required to pay reasonable costs for making copies of them…

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