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Revisions to the state's Public Information Act that have passed the Senate would help ensure greater transparency and provide remedies for people who are denied access to records, and the House of Delegates should move to enact the changes.

As the law now stands, residents who are denied public records have little recourse other than instituting a court challenge at their own expense. In addition, there is no consistency across the state in whether government bodies grant exemptions to search or copy fees, or for that matter what they can charge residents to assemble and copy records.

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Senate Bill 695 would provide some relief to that problem by creating a Public Information Act Compliance Board, modeled after the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board. People denied access to records or told they would have to pay a high cost would be able to file a complaint with the board. The law also creates an open records ombudsman to mediate disputes and help provide residents with greater access to public records.

Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-District 5, said he opposes the provision in the law that would allow public bodies to be fined for willfully ignoring the law. Shoemaker says those are tax dollars, and he doesn't like spending tax dollars to resolve court cases.

But the ability to fine a government that ignores the law is exactly why that provision is needed. The provision kicks in when someone instigates a court action and wins. Just like in any court case, if a party initiates an action against a defendant and wins, they should be able to get back some or all of their costs and the defendant would face some form of penalty.

If elected leaders are defying the law, and as a result have to pay fines or costs when they are taken to court, that would provide additional motivation to get those people out of office. Public officials – just like everyone else -- who knowingly violate the law should face consequences.

The changes in the law that have passed the Senate provide additional tools for residents who have been denied access to information. The House of Delegates should follow the Senate's lead and pass the legislation.

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