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Open-records advocates knock state agency for restricting access

By The Associated Press


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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Right-to-know advocates say the Public Service Commission may have gone too far in restricting public access to information about utility lines and water supplies.

The informal policy, which went into effect after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is designed to keep terrorists from obtaining emergency response plans, natural gas pipeline routes, lists of hazardous materials or other information that the PSC considers sensitive.

All requests for such information are funneled through Richard Hitt, chief PSC counsel for screening.

Critics say the policy may be a violation of the state's Freedom of Information Act, and Hitt acknowledged that it stretches the law's limits.

"This doesn't fit into any of the existing exemptions. We might be able to stretch it into one. Frankly, I think this is something the Legislature ought to take a look at," Hitt said.

"I think, by and large, the policy has worked fairly well. The problem is, I think the process has bogged down a few times, once when I was on vacation. I mean, it's public information. We're just trying to have a little oversight."

Dawn Warfield, president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said requiring people who seek sensitive information to provide identification is reasonable. However, she is concerned that the policy could be abused.

"The risk I see is they start to use this for anything, which they're not entitled to do under the Freedom of Information Act," she said. "Asking someone for ID whenever they want access to public information should not be allowed."

Warfield said government officials must strike a balance between public safety and individual liberties.

"A lot of things the government is doing in the name of national security are not necessary and are excessive," she said.

"I'm not as troubled by this as by the government looking at your library records. They already eavesdrop on your telephone conversations if you use a wireless or cordless phone.

"Those are the kinds of abuses I'm more concerned about. Holding people incommunicado without charging them with crimes. Whether they're citizens or not, they still have rights," Warfield said.

Terry Wimmer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Shott Chair of Journalism at West Virginia University, said the policy "goes against the spirit of open information."

"This was a fear of mine, coming out of (Sept. 11), that we will have bureaucrats deciding what is public records," said Wimmer.

"The law is clear," he said. "They (the PSC) do not have the power to create secret or unwritten policies about what is open or not. A decision made upon a subjective standard of 'suspicious' is disturbing and goes against the basic tenets of an open society."


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Ombudsman Government information must be branded as crucial to democracy, to responsible governance and to freedom.  07.11.02

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Analysis First Amendment advocates, state lawmakers say middle ground has been found that protects sensitive information but doesn't unnecessarily freeze out public.  05.21.02

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