Gov’t agencies, officials owe us more transparency

Gov. Jim Justice has made an art form out of speaking much but saying little, and his meaningless verbal abstractions were on full display at a news briefing earlier this month as he non-answered questions about West Virginia jails’ myriad problems. If you sifted through enough of the ramblings and Justice-isms, you could eventually come up with what amounted to “We’re still looking” or “We’ll keep looking.”

Justice’s administration has been equally opaque. There were, of course, the missing emails and records that brought the wrath of a judge down upon the state. Then there was the supposed magic recovery of some of the missing material. More than that, though, is the sheer inaccessibility of information that should be public record.

As Sara Whitaker, criminal legal policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, pointed out, “Right now, the media and the public must rely on open records requests to obtain any information about deaths in these jails, the number and nature of grievances filed and even how many people are in the state’s custody on a given day. There is nothing stopping the governor from making this information available online.”

Open records requests and Freedom of Information Act requests are how journalists and private individuals can request access to government information. While the government is supposed to err on the side of openness, it will often find reasons to delay granting or outright deny requests. And it’s not just West Virginia’s jails system that does this. It’s a known issue across state — and even municipal — agencies.

We tend to be of the mindset that taxpayers have a right to know to what their tax dollars are doing; therefore, any taxpayer-funded office, agency or service should be almost entirely transparent: Almost all information should be offered or made easily accessible as the default, with only highly personal information (think, Social Security numbers and birthdays) hidden.

Government entities and officials shouldn’t be able to hide behind slow and laborious FOIA requests. If the information can be FOIA’d anyway, then it should be easily accessible to begin with. This applies not just to the jail system and its current scandal, but to all government agencies and services.

Transparency would also mean no more internal-only investigations, like the ones being conducted within the state’s jails system. Every organization — private or public — has a vested interest in protecting itself, its assets and its reputation. Internal-only investigations make it too easy for evidence to disappear, offenders to avoid discipline and problems to be covered up or downplayed. Investigations should always be done by an independent third party whose only vested interest is in the truth.

As part of our symbiotic relationship with the government, public entities are entitled to know certain things about us to ensure they serve us to the greatest extent possible. As the people who fund the government, we should be entitled to know certain things about public agencies and services to ensure that they are, in fact, serving us to the greatest extent possible.