SUNSHINE ON YOUR SHOULDER - Public Information Fading, News Becomes Entertainment


The West Virginia Legislature is re-visiting possible changes to the state's Freedom of Information Act.

A bill says they will define what the open government law means by public record.

The measure applies to the term to any writing prepared or received by a public body, if its content or context relates to the public's business.

Lawmakers have sought to revise that definition since a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling rejected a FOIA lawsuit by The Associated Press.

The AP had sued for emails between a Supreme Coourt Justise Spike Maynard and then Massey CEO Blankenship, connected to high profile cases before the Supreme Court.

The issue surfaced after Justice Maynard and Blankenship were photographed vacationing in xxxxx. Week has been designated a special week to focus on the open meeting and public information laws in West Virginia.

Even then, the sun faded behind a few clouds.

The same agencies that have historically stonewalled and hidden behind the exceptions, continue to do the same.

WVU School of Journalism professor Terry Wimmer was given the Roger Baldwin Founders Award for his "Project Access" in 2002, a Freedom of Information Audit carried out by the West Virginia Associated Press Managing Editors Association and 12 of its member newspapers.

The study was an eye-opener, reflecting on police agencies, boards of education, government offices and boards responsible to the public.

Project Access was created to test the willingness of officials to provide information that should be made available upon request under West Virginia's 1977 Freedom of Information Act.

While some agencies and some officials did exactly what they should under the law, abuse in all 55 counties surfaced, some of it in a manner that issued a wake-up call for the public's right to know.

Many public agencies and officials just would not respond, and a call went out to train officials regarding their responsibility to the public.

The Clay County Board of Education continued for some time their long-standing policy of not issuing an agenda to the public, except at the last minute.

Clay superintendent of schools at the time Jerry Linkenogger did not only not provide public information, he ordered a backround check of the person requesting the information.

"But, that's Clayberry," says renegade reporter Andy Waddell, who was the recipient of the ACLUs Sid Bell Memorial Award, recognizing his efforts toward "sunshine."

The Gilmer County Commission, frazzled by a couple local "activists," reportedly tried to deny tape and video recording of their meetings, both being allowed under the public information laws.

A few years ago a Grantsville town councilman loudly objected to the use of a tape recorder by the Hur Herald during an official meeting, and the mayor had to get a written statement from Charleston to approve the recording.

Project Access in 2002 declared Braxton County the worst county in the state, unresponsive to information requests. Maybe they have improved. Calhoun's elected officials fared well, but there were exceptions.

Many public agencies, like the West Virginia State Police deny public information requests using the act's legal loopholes, advising the inquirer if they feel the denial is not appropriate, seek resolution through the court system. In other words, sue them.

Police obviously should and do deny public information regarding investigations and pending court cases.

The State Police in Calhoun have had a long pattern of information denial, even before the Hur Herald went on-line in 1999.

They even denied public information about the number of stolen ATVs in 2008. They continue to investigate themselves when people file complaints, their long-standing system of internal review has abolished trust.

In Calhoun County, the list of misconduct and problems is so long, the agency jumps through the hoops, pretending officers are being held accountable, implying there is adequate supervision.

Efforts to create civilian review boards have been fought back for years.

The Hampshire County Board of Education denied citizens the right to comment during a board meeting, but they have now changed their mind.

The State Insurance Commission prepared a study against third-party lawsuits for the West Virginia Legislature, indicating reform is needed, but they blacked-out all their sources, names and e-mail addresses in the 600-page document.

A while back, the State Department of Transportation scheduled a news conference to release a highway study prepared by West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Then they wouldn't make the report public. It painted a gloomy picture about the state's inability to maintain 40,000 miles of highway, saying no other state faces such a large tax burden with little federal help.

The report blasted the West Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles because they doubled their payroll and budget since 1996 and taxpayers coughed-up a quarter-billion dollars in the past two decades for access roads to new facilities, mostly private businesses.

The report said that over one-third of West Virginia roads and bridges are sub-standard, the worst in the nation.

Perhaps the most sobering "sunshine" news is the results of a major independent study by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, conducted by the University of Connecticut.

The extensive study says one in three US high school students say the press ought to be more restricted, and even more say the government should approve newspaper stories before readers see them.

A minority of students exhibited knowledge of the First Amendment.

A major survey of 112,003 students finds that 36% believe newspapers should get "government approval" of stories before publishing; 51% say they should be able to publish freely; 13% have no opinion.

The survey asked whether the press enjoys "too much freedom," not enough or about the right amount, 32% of the students said the press has "too much" and 37% say it has the right amount. Ten percent say it has too little.

Recent studies show that the federal government has continued to tighten public information, and is less likely to release information on a FOIA request.

Democracy requires that the people's business be conducted in the daylight, where all can see. Concealment raises suspicions.

The control of news by corporate media, which now owns most TV, radio and print outlets, may be even a greater threat to the public's right to know.

Mainstream media has become a constant but entertaining rant to polarize American voters, similar to those outlined in the Herald's Epistles of how politicians keep political control - "Make noise, confusion, conflict and chaos, and make'em think you really care."

"Make them believe there is a great battle between the political parties, so they can have their way."

"Furthermore, make'em really pissed-off, divide-em and keep'em away from the polls, so that those who desire divine power can have their way," indicating those with vested interests will always show up at the polls.

West Virginia's Freedom of Information Act continues to be deneutered, with few complaints from the public.

Hur Herald from Sunny Cal
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