Defending Our Right to Know

“Transparency” has become one of the favorite buzzwords used by politicians and candidates for office. All too often, they are about as transparent as a lump of coal. We suppose West Virginians ought to be grateful that we are reminded of that frequently.

Another tipoff has come in regard to the RISE West Virginia scandal. You will recall that last year, it was learned state officials were dragging their feet in using nearly $150 million in federal funds intended to aid victims of severe flooding in June 2016. Earlier this year, some people still waiting for assistance sought help from Mountain State Justice, a nonprofit group providing legal assistance. MSJ attorney Bren Pomponio asked for certain flood aid records from the state Commerce Department. Frustrated at foot-dragging over the documents, he filed a lawsuit against the agency several weeks ago.

State attorneys said the lawsuit should be dismissed. Why, they argued in Kanawha County Circuit Court, Pomponio had not complied with a law requiring that anyone suing a state official or agency provide 30 days’ notice before filing.

Apparently, transparency applies only if state officials cannot find a technicality to dodge it.

Circuit Judge Tera Salango wasn’t buying. Last Monday, she rejected the state lawyers’ contention. The 30-day notice rule does not apply to lawsuits filed under West Virginians Freedom of Information Act, Salango explained.

Pomponio finally received the documents he sought, but only after he filed a lawsuit. As Salango noted, the Commerce Department kept him waiting for seven months before it complied with the open records law — and then did so only after he sued.

Salango’s ruling, then, does not impact Pomponio’s original ruling. It does serve as notice that most in the judiciary view “transparency” as more than a word.

Good. Threats to the public’s right to know, ranging from closed meetings to potential changes in rules requiring publication of legal notices, persist. Each and every one of those obstacles needs to be surmounted.

West Virginians are all too familiar with what can happen when government at all levels is permitted to function behind closed doors. Defending our right to know remains a battle we should not have to fight — but must.

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