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Editorial: Secrecy

A TASK FORCE appointed to rewrite state laws on mountaintop removal mining was disbanded, rather than let the public know what it was doing. This sounds like the CIA in operation.

The panel was the second such study group. After the first one filed its report, Gov. Cecil Underwood, House Speaker Bob Kiss and Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin appointed a follow-up body to write legislation based on the findings of the original task force.

When the new group held its first meeting last week, Jim Teets, the governor's chief of staff, kicked coalfield residents out of the session and said all its meetings would be closed.

Gubernatorial spokesman Rod Blackstone said the group was an informal one assigned to write legislation. He said the state's Open Meetings Act, which guarantees that public business is done in the open, doesn't apply.

Baloney. The group was appointed to draft a state law. The Open Meetings Act applies to any body with authority "to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy or administration."

When The Charleston Gazette raised objections to the secrecy and it became apparent the issue wouldn't go away, state leaders killed the new group, rather than let West Virginians hear its deliberations.

Underwood, Kiss and Tomblin issued a joint release blaming the task force's demise on this newspaper. They insisted there was no "sinister intent" in keeping the meetings closed, just a desire for "efficient" drafting of legislation.

By that logic, the entire state Legislature could huddle with lobbyists in complete secrecy - perhaps at The Greenbrier resort. It certainly would be an "efficient" way to write laws, without public interference.

However, there's a clear rule in government: Those who have nothing to hide don't kick out the public. They don't mind letting West Virginians hear and see them at work. Open government is a basic principle of democracy.

The abrupt cancellation of the new task force raised public suspicion that leaders wanted something to be kept hidden.


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