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Counties not fully compliant with FOI laws, audit finds

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WEST VIRGINIA   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   July 8, 2005


Counties not fully compliant with FOI laws, audit finds

  • Requests for documents during a recent statewide public records audit were met with a range of responses, including a delayed response from a Bible-quoting public official, and resulted in fewer than half of the county agencies producing everything they are required to under the law.

July 8, 2005  ·   Public officials in fewer than half of the counties in West Virginia fully complied with requests for public records during a recent test of the state’s public records law by The Associated Press.

AP and more than 20 member newspapers in the state sought records from four agencies — county commissions, school boards, magistrates and sheriff’s departments — in 51 of West Virginia’s 55 counties in early June. Requesters sought the same documents in each county — superintendents’ employment contracts from school boards, case records from the past 24 hours from magistrates, operating budgets from commissions and incident reports from sheriffs’ offices. The auditors were told to ask for a supervisor if they did not initially receive the information and, if that also failed, to submit a written request

Agencies in 22 counties provided all four sets of requested information, and of those, only 11 produced all of the documents on first request, according to AP.

Clay County’s school superintendent provided his contract only after the auditor submitted a written request, but said he would have given him the information sooner if the auditor had been “nicer” and then quoted a passage about kindness from the Bible, according to AP. Under the state’s open records law, records must be provided “as soon as is practicable.”

One auditor requesting records from the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department was told to ask The [Martinsburg] Journal, a local daily newspaper.

Some officials, citing privacy concerns, said they needed legal advice before releasing any information, and several magistrates said they did not have time to find the requested documents.

One county in the state — McDowell County — complied with none of the requests. Every other county eventually supplied at least two of the sought documents, with 45 providing at least three of the four desired pieces of information.

But the response rates varied wildly among the types of offices. As in other surveys conducted around the country, sheriffs’ offices had the lowest release rate, 57 percent, compared to 96 percent for magistrates, and 94 and 84 percent for commissioners and superintendents, respectively, according to AP. The sheriff’s offices’ compliance rate was much higher than the 21 percent recorded in the state in 2001, an improvement some credited to an education program begun after their previous poor showing.

TS

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