If some document or piece of information is a matter of public record, how can a public servant withhold it from the public?
We are the public. Government employees work for us. No private sector employee would dare to withhold company information from his boss, and no boss would tolerate such insubordination. Why should we?
Granted, there may be exceptions to an otherwise comprehensive policy of transparency, such as details in personnel files that should remain confidential or proprietary information that needs protection from competing interests. But only in rare occasions, requests for public access to public records should be accommodated expeditiously.
You don’t need a college education, much less an advanced degree, to understand this concept, but Harry Montoro, West Virginia University’s Freedom of Information Act Officer, seems befuddled by it.
Thanks to his confusion or intransigence, the university is now embroiled in a lawsuit filed in Monongalia Circuit Court by Appalachian Mountain Advocates, a nonprofit law firm whose FOIA request for documents related to the China Energy deal were denied.
Late last November, AMA requested copies of any memoranda of understanding between the state and China Energy between January and November 2017. The firm also sought a list of projects between the state and China Energy, and any other documents related to the China Energy deal.
Montoro rejected the request a week later, contending that it should have been submitted to the West Virginia Department of Commerce instead.
“The fact that another public entity may also possess the requested record — and may, even, exercise greater control over that record — is immaterial,” AMA said.
According to the suit, Montoro also claimed that the request was too broad and that the agreement between China Energy and the state, containing “proprietary trade secrets and/or information related to economic development,” is exempt from FOIA rules.
Can citizens be faulted for not trusting public servants and thinking that they must be hiding something? Is it any wonder that public trust in government is at an all-time low?
And don’t forget that we citizens will be paying for the lawyers and the judges and the clerks who will be involved in the suit.