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House bill on open records needs passage

January 23, 2012
The Inter-Mountain

West Virginia's open records law contains ample exemptions to safeguard the public's interest as well as the privacy of individuals. But when officials and people outside government are engaged in communications that may affect the public's interests, keeping the information secret is not acceptable.

In a 2009 ruling, state Supreme Court justices looked at the issue. At the time, relying on the open records law as it existed then and remains, justices decided personal e-mails sent by public officials did not have to be made public. Only e-mails and other communications on official business or matters are subject to the law requiring release to the public, the court determined.

Clearly, that needs to be changed. Members of the House of Delegates agree. In a bill approved unanimously by the House last Wednesday, the definition of "public record" in the open meetings law would be revised.

The revision would stipulate documents, including e-mails, "prepared or received by a public body, the content or context of which, judged either by its content or context, relates to the conduct of the public's business."

It is the word "context" that makes the difference. In the 2009 case, e-mails between a then-sitting member of the Supreme Court and a coal company executive whose cases had been handled by the court were sought by The Associated Press. Both the jurist and the executive insisted the messages were entirely of a private nature. The state Supreme Court agreed they did not have to be released.

But in the context of the situation, even communications on private matters may have provided important information to the public. The House bill recognizes that.

It should be approved by the state Senate and signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.



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