Braxton and Lewis counties have a lot in common. They're neighbors, and Interstate 79 passes through the heart of each county. Braxton's population is about 15,000; Lewis' about 17,000. Income levels are about the same.But Lewis County scored best and Braxton County scored worst in a recent audit to determine how well county officials comply with the state's Freedom of Information Act.There doesn't seem to be a pattern to which counties scored poorly or well in the audit. Counties large and small and from every geographic region can be found at the top and the bottom of the list.When a reporter asked employees in the Doddridge County clerk's office for their boss's expense records, they turned them over without asking for permission.
"Sometimes we get requests from people who cite the Freedom of Information Act, and they don't even need to," said County Clerk Janice Ellifritt Cox. "It's already public information. They're entitled to it."But in the Braxton County clerk's office, employees turned down two requests for the same information, and never replied to a letter that a reporter left behind asking for the documents. State law requires officials to respond within five days.Braxton County Clerk John Jordan said some of his employees are reluctant to grant unusual requests without talking to him first."If I'm not here, they're hesitant to do anything," Jordan said. "I'm here most of the time, but a lot of the time I'm out."
Overworked and understaffed
As part of a statewide audit this fall, news reporters visited the offices of county clerks, commissioners, sheriffs, and school superintendents to ask for public records. In counties that did well, they were given the records quickly, as the law demands.In counties that did poorly, officials quizzed them about who they were or why they wanted the records, or forced them to leave behind a letter asking for the documents.Altogether, 76 percent of sheriffs, 11 percent of school superintendents and 5 percent of county clerks refused to give out requested public documents.Officials in poor scoring counties often said their front-line people were overworked, making it tough to comply with public requests. Braxton Sheriff Howard Carpenter said that on the day a reporter visited his county, only he and one deputy were available to respond to police calls.
"As you can tell, my office is at times overworked and understaffed," he wrote. "It is impossible for us to hand out information on a moment's notice, especially without investigating the request."A reporter asked him for seven days of incident reports, and he sent a letter back saying the request was "a little overboard" and asked for a more specific request.
A Braxton county commissioner said he was surprised to hear his county did poorly in the audit, and said he wanted to make it right."It's not that we're trying to hide everything, I assure you that," said Commissioner John Gibson. "If you give me a list of what you want, we'll get it for you now."
What right do you have?'
Many officials said they wanted more training about the Freedom of Information Act.In Lewis County, Commissioner Sam Hicks credited training from the state County Commissioner's Association for helping him understand the act and open-meetings laws.He remembers going into closed session only two times in his 12 years in office. A local newspaper editor says he's only had to write two formal requests for information in 24 years."We feel it's in our best interest to deal on an up-and-up basis with the public," Hicks said.Greenbrier County Clerk William J. Livesay shared his expense records, but only after he received a formal letter and turned down a reporter two times in person. In both cases, he said he wanted legal advice."I'm a new clerk," said Livesay, who took office in August 2000."Up to when he [the reporter] came in, he was the first one to ever ask for these. He walks in, sits down, and said, I want a copy of your expenses.'"So I'm thinking Who are you? What right do you have?' I realize now everybody has a right."It doesn't seem right that John Doe could walk in off the street from anywhere in the country and get this information. It seems like it's confidential information, but I guess it is public money."
Staff writer Dawn Miller contributed to this story.To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.