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Town can't charge for FOIA searches, judge rules

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Officials for the city of Nitro can't charge citizens $25 an hour to look up information to fulfill state Freedom of Information Act requests, a Kanawha County judge has ruled.

In 2009, Nitro City Council approved an ordinance charging citizens $25 an hour if it took city officials more than 10 minutes to look up information to comply with FOIA requests. The fee was supposed to compensate the city for the time it took to collect the requested information.

But last year, Richard and Lorinda Nease challeged the ordinance in court.

In June 2012, the Neases filed a FOIA request asking for copies of a city ordinance, minutes of meetings concerning the ordinance and complaints to the city about storm drainage, according to court documents on file in Kanawha Circuit Court.

Under state law, Nitro officials had five days to either provide copies of the information, tell the Neases when and where they could look at the information or deny their request.

Instead, they were sent a letter saying the city would be collecting the information. When the Neases hadn't gotten the information more than a month later, they filed a second FOIA request and were told they would have to pay $25 an hour for city workers to look the information up.

The Neases didn't pay the fee and never got the information. The issue ended up in front of Kanawha Circuit Judge Charlie King.

In a ruling filed April 25, King said the city couldn't charge a fee to look up and collate information. he said state law only allows government bodies to charge for the "actual cost" of making reproductions of public records.

"The statute does not contain any further grant of authority to public bodies to charge other fees, i.e., for searching for, retrieving or compiling public records," King wrote.

In 2009, officials in Dunbar passed an ordinance requiring citizens to pay $10 an hour to look up public information. They rescinded the policy within a few months.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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