Newspaper sues county clerk over FOIA

By Justin Anderson | Mar 5, 2009

CHARLES TOWN -- The Shepherdstown Observer newspaper has filed a lawsuit against the Jefferson County Clerk over her refusal to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Observer says it wanted to see documents related to a petition gathered to spur a referendum on a zoning change passed by the county commission. The change was passed in Oct. 2008, according to the newspaper's complaint filed Feb. 11.

The petition is allowed by law to challenge the zoning change. Ten-percent of registered voters in the affected area have to sign the petition to prompt the referendum vote.

The newspaper later learned that about 18 percent of the signatures on the petition were deemed invalid by the Clerk, Jennifer Maghan.

In the interest of news gathering, the plaintiff newspaper filed a request for documents related to the petition through the state's Freedom of Information Act on Jan. 5.

According to the complaint, Maghan denied the request 10 days later, saying the information on the petition is private and therefore exempt from being released under the law.

The only information she released was a document showing how many of the gathered signatures her office had deemed valid. The names of the people who signed the petition were withheld.

The newspaper contends the names are part of an election process and, therefore, the public's business. The complaint asks the judge to order the clerk to turn over the documents and for the county to pay all associated legal fees.

Stephen G. Skinner is representing the Observer.

Jefferson Circuit Court case number: 09-C-49

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