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Published: Thursday, April 03, 1997
Page: P4A

WHY CAN'T legislators see that public business - especially when it involves giving away millions of tax dollars - must be conducted in the open, with knowledge of the people?

A bill to exempt the Development Office from the state Freedom of Information Act should have been laughed off the floor of the Senate.

But lawmakers are suckers for development pitches. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Jack Buckalew, R-Kanawha, admitted to reporter Ken Ward Jr. that he couldn't name one example in which release of Development Office documents hurt efforts to attract businesses.

Buckalew said he introduced the bill - which would exempt any state government document "made or received for the purpose of furnishing assistance to a new or existing business" - simply because Development Office Director Thomas C. Burns asked him to.

Burns did not provide any examples of harm caused by "sunshine," but Buckalew nonetheless undertook a major step to let government officials hide information from the people. That's pretty irresponsible for an alleged public servant.

Burns wants this bill because his office lost a case brought by the Gazette forcing disclosure of documents about inducements offered for a proposed Mason County pulp mill.

None of those documents contained proprietary information or trade secrets (which could have been withheld under an existing exemption).

But the documents were embarrassing to the Development Office because they showed the absurd lengths officials were willing to go to to curry favor with developers.

For instance, state agents met privately with Mason County schools officials to arrange the closing of an elementary school that was inconveniently located near the proposed mill site.

They encouraged state environmental officials and legislators to weaken pollution limits to make the mill's operation easier and less expensive.

One official - Rolland Phillips - even castigated his boss, then-Gov.

Caperton, for not taking a strong enough public stance in favor of the mill.

Phillips also ghost-wrote letters for the company, and then wrote the official reply from the state.

Other documents showed that the mill was eligible for as much as $750 million in super tax credits. The Development Office later said the mill would probably only receive $150 million in credits, but no documents confirming the lower figure have been released.

Recently, the Development Office wrote a letter to the state Air Quality Board asking the board not to end the permitting process for the mill, even though the company dropped its option on the Mason County land.

That letter was released only after a reporter filed a Freedom of Information request.

Had the new law been in effect, the letter would have remained secret.

Last time we checked, West Virginia was a democracy. In a democracy, the people have a right to know what government is doing in their name - especially when government is giving away millions of dollars to out-of-state corporations.

The Senate should let this bill die, and Buckalew should apologize for even introducing it.

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