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Circuit FOIA decision reversed

By Staff | Oct 1, 2010

CHARLES TOWN – Jefferson County’s clerk must release petition signatures sought by a local newspaper, a unanimous state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The West Virginia Supreme Court overturned a previous ruling of Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge David Sanders in regard to public records laws Thursday morning in Charleston.

The case stemmed from a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by The Observer, a newspaper in Shepherdstown, to the Jefferson County clerk’s office. The FOIA request asked for the names of people who signed a petition in support of a vote on a Jefferson County zoning referendum in 2009.

Jefferson County Clerk Jennifer Maghan refused to release the names on the petition, wanting to preserve the privacy of those who signed.

Petition organizers were told by the West Virginia secretary of state’s office that names on the petition would be secret, similar to voting during an election, according to a news release issued by Maghan.

Maghan followed the secretary of state’s advice and refused to release the names to The Observer, which intended to publish them, the news release stated.

A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24 ruled that names on petitions, with some exceptions, should be made public.

Maghan, however, did not release the names at that time because she wanted West Virginia’s Supreme Court to rule on the matter, according to previous Journal reports.

In his 2009 ruling in Jefferson County, Sanders stated the petition names were not public record because a government agency did not create the petition. Sanders also said that disclosing the signatures would violate the signers’ privacy and chill the ability of citizens to petition government.

However, the state’s Supreme Court opinion, delivered by Justice Menis Ketchum, said disclosing the signatures under FOIA “serves a vital function in protecting the integrity of the electoral process and in promoting transparency and accountability in the ‘conduct of the public’s business.'”

Charles Town attorney Stephen Skinner who represented The Observer along with West Virginia University law professor Patrick McGinley, obviously was pleased the court ruled in his client’s favor.

“This case is important primarily because of its ruling on the West Virginia FOIA laws,” Skinner said. “In many ways the opinion speaks for itself. It’s good that people’s access to public information is being upheld. This is really a ruling for the people.”

Once The Observer receives the names on the petition, it will continue with its story, said Thomas Harding, the newspaper’s publisher.

“I think it’s good for the people of Jefferson County and for democracy,” he said. “It sheds light on the democratic process, makes it more accountable. This was always about making the point (that the petition) was a public record.”

Now that the state Supreme Court has ruled, Maghan will give the petition names to The Observer.

“Our office followed the law, followed the advice of the West Virginia secretary of state and conducted our duties with integrity,” Maghan’s news release said. “Based on the Supreme Court’s decision to allow The Observer access to the petitioner’s names, we will comply and provide the requested information.”

The petition’s organizers, Ed Burns and Ronda Lehman, could not be reached for comment on Thursday.