|By Bob Weaver|
Right in the middle of national "Sunshine Week" about open government, West Virginia is taking a step back.
The cost of getting public information under West Virginia's Freedom of Information laws has just gone up.
Government agencies can now charge research fees for finding records, although some always have.
The WV Supreme Court has ruled that state agencies can charge citizens an hourly fee for the time it takes to find public documents requested under the state's Freedom of Information Act. The decision was based upon an interpretation of the original FOIA law.
The case was brought by a citizen against the city of Nitro for charging $25 an hour for work finding the requested records.
Since the state's FOIA law was passed, the legislature has continued to make numerous exceptions and agencies have exercised broad interpretations of the law to not provide information.
In a statewide study by the Associated Press, the West Virginia State Police was given an "F."
In a recent public information request to the WV Department of Natural Resources, a bill was included indicating there was a $25 charge for researching the information, although it was waived, and charges were issued for actual paper copies.
That will likely change.
Now, if a citizen or a newspaper wants public information, they are almost assured of being charged such an hourly fee, although individuals can go to the agency and research the information, which means, with state agencies, traveling to Charleston.
The Hur Herald getting public information over the past 18 years, even before the current decision that allows hourly fees, has become increasingly difficult, although locally (excepting the State Police) agencies have been helpful.
A few years ago, a large number of ATVs had been stolen in the county, and the WV State Police declined to release such information, not alone information regarding internal problems that surfaced with officers.
The agency, in denying the information, cited alleged exclusions in specific parts of the FOIA code, and advised if the party requesting the information could bring a lawsuit if they feel the denial is inappropriate.
The WV Supreme Court, in a ruling filed in a lawsuit by the Charleston Gazette, the State Police have been ordered to provide information about officer misconduct and the millions of dollars paid by the agency in civil suits.
Even before the latest decision to charge for research time, obtaining faxed copies by the Herald of a criminal complaint from a few regional magistrate offices has been up to $30, those courts allowing a $2 per page charge allowed for coping and transmittal.
Sometimes the cost for a complaint about a single case approaches $30, although a drive to a regional magistrate office you can view the complaint free on an in-house monitor.
Justice Brent Benjamin, the lone dissenter in the most recent Supreme Court decision, accused the court of giving public bodies a way to discourage FOIA requests by "imposing an ever-increasing 'reasonable' fee on all such requests."
"I predict that most or all public bodies soon will charge a retrieval or search fee for producing records," Benjamin wrote.
Regarding the obtaining of public information by the Hur Herald, because of a lack of financial resources, expect to see less and less.
However, we will report efforts to obtain public information, and why we could not obtain it.
The sunshine has dimmed.
See SUNSHINE WEEK: THE PUBLIC'S RIGHT TO KNOW - Police Misconduct Could Become Public After Supreme Court Decision
SUPREME COURT RULES STATE POLICE CANNOT KEEP INTERNAL INVESTIGATION OUTCOMES SECRET - Lower Court Will Review Information To Be Released