Review Open Meetings Law

Some public officials are just like children: Tell them what the rules are and it is just a matter of time before they devise loopholes to get around them.

So it is with laws intended to ensure government serves us. Both ethics and government openness laws need to be reviewed constantly to keep up with the ways some officials find to circumvent them.

West Virginia has strong open meetings and open records laws. But members of the state Ethics Commission are right to recommend the Legislature update the Open Governmental Meetings Act.

At the same time, care must be taken to ensure public officials do not use a review to insert more loopholes in the statute. One key to that is to insist the law’s provisions be augmented, not modified to remove some existing protections.

One important improvement needed in the law concerns “emergency” meetings of public bodies such as boards of education, municipal councils and county commissions. Current law allows some relaxation of advance notice to the public of meetings when an emergency must be dealt with.

But the definition of an emergency is anything on which “immediate official action” is required. Public officials have wide leeway on what that means. It should be narrowed to ensure only genuine emergencies qualify for exemptions of some public notification rules.

Updating the open meetings law has been discussed by some legislators for about a year. Many lawmakers don’t like reopening the discussion because it will subject them to pressure from local government officials who want the statute to require less, not more, accountability from them.

But public meetings and records laws are intended to serve the people of West Virginia, not those we elect or appoint to serve us. Legislators should review the open meetings statute in that spirit – and in the knowledge the people will be keeping a close, critical eye on the process.