The West Virginia FOIA and Data Security Regulations
The West Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) refers to a series of laws that were passed for the purpose of providing citizens with access to certain public records and government information. To this point, the West Virginia FOIA establishes the procedures that members of the public must adhere to when looking to access, inspect, or copy a public record that is maintained by a particular public authority within the state. Furthermore, the law also outlines the responsibilities that said public authorities have in terms of the accessibility of their public records, as well as the penalties that can be imposed against institutions and individuals that are found to be in violation of the law.
What is the scope and applicability of the law?
As it concerns the scope and applicability of the law, the West Virginia FOIA applies to “all State, county and municipal officers, governing bodies, agencies, departments, boards and commissions, and any other bodies created or primarily funded by State or local authority, unless their enabling statute specifically exempts them from its provisions. The records covered by the Act include virtually all documents and information retained by a public body, regardless of their form.” Alternatively, the law defines a public record as “any writing containing information prepared or received by a public body, the content or context of which, judged either by content or context, relates to the conduct of the public’s business.”
What are the duties of public bodies under the law?
The duties that public bodies within West Virginia have under the law as it pertains to the right of members of the general public to request access to the public records of said bodies include but are not limited to:
- Every person has the right to access, inspect, and copy the public records that are maintained by public bodies within the state of West Virginia, subject to certain exceptions.
- Custodians of public records are responsible for responding to all requests to access their public records within 5 business days.
- Custodians of public records must allow members of the public to access their public records during regular business hours. Furthermore, custodians of public records must also provide members of the general public with facilities that can be used to access, inspect, and copy the records of said custodians.
- When denying access to public records, the custodian of said records is responsible for providing the requestor with the reasons that led to their decision, in writing.
- Records custodians have a responsibility to redact any confidential or exempt information that may be present in the public records that they maintain prior to disclosing said records to a member of the general public.
- Records custodians are permitted to establish fees that requestors must pay when looking to request copies of records.
What public records are exempt from disclosure under the law?
The West Virginia Freedom of Information Act sets forth numerous public records that are exempt from disclosure under the law. For instance, security and disaster recovery plans that are maintained by a particular public body within the state are considered to be exempt from disclosure under the law. With all this being said, some further examples of public records that are exempt under the law include:
- Public records that must remain confidential under another state or federal law.
- Computing, telecommunications, and network security records.
- Architectural and infrastructure designs.
- Codes for facility security systems.
- Engineering plans that contain descriptions of public utilities.
- Trade secrets and commercial information.
- Test questions, scoring keys, and examination materials.
- Personally identifiable information.
- National security records.
- Specific intelligence information.
- Internal memorandum that is prepared by a public body.
- Archeological and historical information.
What are the penalties for violating the law?
As relates to the enforcement of the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act, the sections of the law are enforced by the state attorney general. Subsequently, public bodies and records custodians that are in charge of the maintenance of public records are subject to numerous punishments should they fail to maintain compliance with the law. Notably, violations of the law can result in a misdemeanor, a monetary fine ranging from $100 to $500, as well as imprisonment in a West Virginia county jail for up to 20 days. What’s more, aggrieved parties are also entitled to recover attorney fees and reasonable court costs.
As stated in the law, the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act is designed to provide citizens of the state with the means to access the information and public records regarding the affairs of their government agencies and institutions. As such, the provisions of the law provide these citizens with the opportunity to stay informed about the decisions that affect their daily lives as it pertains to local and state government. In this way, residents of West Virginia are afforded the means to hold their elected officials accountable for their specific deeds and actions.