By Matt Murphy

West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's Office will start charging the public to obtain documents that were previously available free and online.

The new charges take effect Sept. 4, according to a notice at the bottom of business license filings web page.

Once the fees take effect, members of the public who wish to view business and organization license filings will be charged $5 to have the document sent by e-mail and $10 to have the document faxed. For a printed version by mail or pick-up in person, the charge will be $1 for the first page and 50 cents for each page thereafter.

The fee amounts are set by state law, not the office.

Public document filings for businesses and organizations used to be available for the public to view for free in PDF format online. Those filings included things like articles of incorporation, certificates of dissolution, statements of mergers and statements of changes of officers.

Information in those documents can be used to determine the officers of a business or organization and if and when those officers changed. Contact information for business organizers, like telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, is also contained in the documents.

Members of the news media often use the database to contact business owners.

All information businesses provide to the Secretary of State's Office is on legal public documents.

In June, however, the office removed all filings after a local insurance agent found her Social Security number had not been scrubbed from a document.

"We haven't been able to go through all the thousands of documents to make sure there's nothing on there," said Jake Glance, spokesman for Tennant's office.

Glance pointed out some information, like current officers and if a business has an unexpired license, is still available for free on the website.

However, electronic copies of the current and previous legal documents themselves are no longer available.

Glance said part of the rationale behind the fees is that since the records have been removed from the website, some entities have requested a large amount of documents all at once, taking up time and resources of staff members who would normally be doing other tasks.

"We were getting calls from companies to get 30 businesses," he said, adding it would "take a staff person from the Business and Licensing Division days to complete."

On top of that, the employee must go through the records page by page to ensure no private information is accidentally released.

"There is a lot of work in going back and getting documents," he said. "It's really a way to protect business owners to make sure information stays secure."

(c)2014 the Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, W.Va.)