The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia (ACLU-WV) today provided notice to West Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw and House Clerk Steve Harrison that it intends to pursue litigation against the House for violations of the Open Governmental Proceedings Act.
During a Wednesday, March 24 meeting of the House Technology and Infrastructure Committee, the audio feed through which the public can “attend” committee meetings malfunctioned. As a result, substantial portions of the meeting were completely inaudible. Although committee members and legislative staff were aware that the public did not have meaningful access to the meeting, the committee did not adjourn and instead moved forward with the meeting.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, public access is tightly restricted at the Capitol. Therefore, audio and video access to committee hearings and floor sessions is the only opportunity for the public to meaningfully observe the legislative process. The West Virginia Governmental Proceedings Act requires that, with few exceptions, “all meetings of any governing body shall be open to the public.” Conducting a meeting when the only opportunity for public access is not available is a violation of the Act.
The Act is a “sunshine law” intended to create greater transparency in government. In the letter, ACLU-WV Legal Director Loree Stark noted that in enacting this legislation, the Legislature stated that “[t]he people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know and what is not good for them to know.” Stark wrote that a technology failure, intentional or otherwise, does not grant the Legislature authority to decide what is good for the “[public] to know or what is good for them not to know.”
If ACLU-WV proceeds with litigation, it will ask for the Circuit Court of Kanawha County to order that any decision made in the committee meeting be set aside. The result is that any law that passes on the basis of action taken in the meeting would be nullified. ACLU-WV will also seek attorneys’ fees and costs.