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Editorials: FOI exemption for letters, memos too broad

Mar. 16, 2013 @ 10:35 PM

Government has never been so vast, and public access to budgets, records and meetings has never been more important.

It is our government, as federal and state constitutions clearly state, and citizens deserve to know how the money is being spent, how decisions are being made, how things work or don't work.

That is certainly the spirit of the opening paragraph of West Virginia's Freedom of Information Act, which reminds us that "government is the servant of the people, and not the master of them." The declaration goes on to say that in West Virginia "all persons are, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees."

But day to day, the process is much more complicated and often difficult for citizens. It seems that it is only human nature for elected officials and agency staffers to sometimes feel that government information belongs to them and not the public. Many times government's interest and citizens' interests conflict, and situations change -- such as the move from paper records to digital records in recent years.

For all those reasons, open government advocates annually observe "Sunshine Week" in March to promote a national discussion about the importance of access to records and meetings. This session, the West Virginia legislature is discussing several issues related to freedom of information, including the critical area of exemptions.

In the preamble quoted above, remember that full and complete access is limited by the phrase "unless otherwise expressly provided by law." West Virginia, for example, has 19 different exemptions to its Freedom of Information Act, ranging from personal information, such as a government worker's medical records, to a number of security provisions.

Many make sense, if used reasonably, but a bill submitted in the House of Delegates this spring seeks to put some limits on one of the broadest exemptions -- "internal memoranda or letters received or prepared by any public body."

In many states, documents -- whatever their form -- are assumed to be public unless the content is specifically excluded under some other provision, bill sponsor House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said at a West Virginia Press Association breakfast earlier this month.

"We don't think something should be exempt from public disclosure just because it's in the form of a letter or a memorandum," Armstead said.

Much of the work of government is done through such documents, and we agree the language is too broad. A memo might be exempt because it contains personnel information, trade secrets or some other information covered by one of the other 18 exemptions, but other documents on the workings of our government should be available to its citizens.

Limiting that exemption better reflects the spirit of open government.

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