Sustained Outrage

When officials in the town of Dunbar announced in January they were going to initiate a $10 an hour “research fee” to look up public information, we sat up and took notice.

City officials said the fee was necessary because city clerks were being inundated with requests for information under the state Freedom of Information Act. Mayor Jack Yeager said Dunbar City Clerk Ron Rowley has been off the job with an illness for a year, leaving two clerks to deal with all the city’s business, including responding to Freedom Information Act requests.

Yeager said Rowley will not resign, and city officials cannot legally just appoint a replacement. He said the “research fee” was put in place to pay someone to look up documents people ask for under the Freedom of Information Act.

State lawmakers passed the act to assure public access to government information. Similar legislation exists on the federal level. With a few narrowly defined exceptions, the Freedom of Information Act says that any record of what the government or its agencies do will be made available for members of the public to see. Anything. Period.

Dunbar’s city government, like other municipal, county and state governments and agencies, is a public body under state law and subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Under that law, “The public body may establish fees reasonably calculated to reimburse it for its actual cost in making reproductions of such records” that are requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

But what constitutes a reasonable fee for reimbursing a government agency for providing copies of public information has never been decided in court. Officials for most towns in Kanawha County said recently that looking up public information is part of municipal employees’ jobs. Since they’re already getting paid, other local communities don’t charge anything extra for the time it takes to look up public records.

Some state and federal agencies do charge a research fee to reimburse employees for the time it takes to look up public information. Dunbar officials justified their own research fee on this premise.

But Patrick McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University, disagrees.

McGinley is author of  “Open Government Guide: West Virginia,” published by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The guide explains West Virginia’s open meetings laws and what they mean.

According to McGinley, the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act were written and intended to be construed as liberally as possible. While governmental agencies can charge for the paper and ink they use to make copies of public records, McGinley said they cannot charge for their time in looking the records up.

But there are reasons beyond sheer legality for opposing research fees. If Dunbar city officials insist on charging a research fee, some observers are afraid other towns in the state will follow suit. McGinley said anything that makes it harder for members of the public to get to public information can squelch public access to government.

Some fear officials in the state’s other towns and cities will take Dunbar’s research fee as a precedent and institute their own fees to discourage people from asking for public information. That would make it much easier to hide what they don’t want us to know.