Sustained Outrage

Gov. Manchin’s Tech Park secrecy

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Gazette photo by Chris Dorst.

You’ve got to hand it to the Daily Mail’s George Hohmann for organizing a media protest of Gov. Joe Manchin’s closed-door meeting about the future of the South Charleston Technology Park.

Gov. Manchin talks a lot about how he wants his administration to be open, but more and more — when a difficult issue gets down to the wire — Manchin seems to be willing to throw transparency aside.

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There’s been some speculation that yesterday’s Tech Park meeting violated the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act — and folks are pointing specifically to the participation of all three Kanawha County Commissioners (two of whom, Kent Carper and Dave Hardy) are pictures above with Gov. Manchin.

But, in fact, it is likely that the meeting didn’t violate any laws. That’s thanks in large part to a major rewrite of the law in 1999, orchestrated at least in part by then-House Judiciary Chairman Jon Amores.

Among the changes was one that excluded the following from the definition of what constitutes a meeting under the Act:

General discussions among members of a governing body on issues of interest to the public when held in a planned or unplanned social, educational, training, informal, ceremonial or similar setting, without intent to conduct public business even if a quorum is present and public business is discussed but there is no intention for the discussion to lead to an official action.

If they were challenged, Kanawha County Commissioners could argue that the Tech Park issue involves no “official action” by the county and therefore they had no intention for their discussion at Manchin’s meeting to lead to an official action.

What’s more, when the Legislature rewrote the Act, they changed the statement of legislative policy to include this language, which has plenty of wiggle room for public officials who want to avoid the sunshine:

The Legislature finds, however, that openness, public access to information and a desire to improve the operation of government do not require nor permit every meeting to be a public meeting. The Legislature finds that it would be unrealistic, if not impossible, to carry on the business of government should every meeting, every contact and every discussion seeking advice and counsel in order to acquire the necessary information, data or intelligence needed by a governing body were required to be a public meeting. It is the intent of the Legislature to balance these interests in order to allow government to function and the public to participate in a meaningful manner in public agency decisionmaking.

Now, to be clear … Gov. Manchin can meet with whoever he wants. Generally, the open meetings law applies to governing bodies — which means two or people people — and not to individual elected officials. Then again, there’s nothing in the law that would prohibit the governor from being a little more open with meetings like this one.