Sustained Outrage

Your city government in action, pt.3

This should actually be part 4 or 5, as I did not post advance agendas of Monday’s City Council and Finance Committee meetings as planned. Normally these agendas appear on the city’s Web site at least four days in advance, but I couldn’t find them until sometime Monday afternoon. The woman who works in the City Clerk’s office who puts these online assured me she did so last Thursday as usual, so maybe the cyber gremlins were at work.

At any rate, council’s Committee on Public Safety has scheduled what its chairman says will be a brief meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. It’s in the Mayor’s Conference Room, on the second floor of City Hall right beside, as you might guess, Mayor Danny Jones‘ office.

I’ve never attended one of their meetings, so I can’t say exactly what they do except to consider bills and other matters related to safety, and then send bills on to full council for approval. There’s just one item on the agenda Thursday, related to a pedestrian walkway under Interstate 64/77 at Piedmont Road near Laidley Field.

I’m told the walkway, built by the state to allow access to homes across the Interstate, is little used these days and a safety hazard. Some folks want to ask the state to close it.

If you care, now’s the time to speak up.

Policing the police, part 3

State Police patchSome of the people who commented on my last post think that the Gazette unfairly focuses on the West Virginia State Police and gives other agencies a free pass. I’m not sure that Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster and Kanawha County Chief Deputy Johnny Rutherford would agree, because I have had conversations a lot like the one I described with both of them on more than one occasion.

Both of those departments investigate allegations of officer misconduct internally. Well, the people who conducted the Charleston Police Department’s double-dipping probe were two senior officers, Capt. Kevin Perdue and Capt. Lex Williamson, and a retired CPD captain, John Tabaretti. (The CPD also has its own Professional Standards unit.)

The CPD objected vigorously — to the point of taking the matter to the state Supreme Court — when the Gazette requested time sheet records of its officers. The CPD’s position seemed to be, Trust us, we know what we’re doing. We don’t need the Gazette looking over our shoulder. Everyone should automatically have faith in the results of our investigation of our own officers. (In a unanimous opinion, the justices re-affirmed that payroll records are public and therefore subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.)

As far as reporting on allegations against the four troopers, it is worth noting that the media — the Gazette included — reports on allegations against suspects in criminal matters before they have been proven in a court of law all the time. (And with the blessing of law enforcement, who sometimes tell us when they will be taking certain suspects to their arraignments. Or do you think we just happen to have cameras at the courthouse every time there’s a “perp walk”?)

There’s a difference between making a complaint and filing a lawsuit. To me, it’s analogous to the difference between someone walking into a police station and saying, “My neighbor stole my lawnmower” and an officer filing a criminal complaint actually charging the neighbor with theft.

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Another week, and another couple of open meetings violations by government agencies in West Virginia …

But only two such violations of the public notice requirements were listed in today’s State Register:

— Appalachian EMS, for a meeting scheduled for Tuesday in Huntington.

— The Hatfield McCoy Regional Recreational Authority, for a quarterly meeting today in Lyburn.

The West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act requires agencies to send meeting notices to the Secretary of State in time for notices to appear in the State Register five days prior to a scheduled meeting. Every week, we list the agencies that didn’t comply, thanks to the Secretary of State’s office, which kindly marks those agencies with an asterick in the list of meetings published each Friday in the Register.

But apparently WVU-Parkersburg is a bit confused about the open meeting requirements. It sent in a notice for an “emergency meeting” — a designation that allows agencies to avoid the five-day notice requirement — on April 9, for a meeting scheduled on April 16. The notice was too late to get in the Register five days prior to the meeting … but WVU-Parkersburg failed to explain the nature of the emergency,  as required by the state law.

More chemical plant secrecy

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Photo via AP by Tom Hindman, Charleston Daily Mail

USA Today published an editorial today criticizing the continued secrecy surrounding the investigation by the federal Chemical Safety Board of the August explosion and fire that killed two workers at Bayer CropScience’s Institute plant.

The editorial, available here,  calls claims by Bayer and the Coast Guard that information about the investigation could hinder national security a “smokescreen” that “hinders” the federal probe:

Though the safety board and the Coast Guard have come to terms for now, the episode is a worrisome demonstration of how easy it is for a company to overwhelm a small agency — the chemical safety board has 36 employees — by burying it with paperwork and making broad national security claims.

Like the National Transportation Safety Board, the chemical safety board has no regulatory authority, and public pressure is often the only tool it has to force companies to change dangerous practices. That makes it crucial for the safety board to be able to make its investigations and recommendations public.

To be sure, national security is a legitimate concern, and chemical plants are an inviting target. But reflexively invoking secrecy, in the name of thwarting al-Qaeda, risks going too far and could allow companies to get away with shoddy safety procedures. The blunt truth is that neighbors are more likely to die in industrial accidents than terrorist attacks. Policy should be set accordingly.

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Your city government in action, part 2

Charleston City Council’s Streets and Traffic Committee will hold one of its occasional meetings at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday. As its name indicates, this group handles issues related to the city’s street system. It considers bills that are commonly introduced by ward council members, often at the urging of neighborhood residents, and then sends them on to full council for final approval.

Typical bills change the speed limit or set parking rules on individual streets.

In the broad scheme of things, these bills are probably not of great interest, which is why the committee doesn’t get a lot of publicity. But if a bill proposes a change on your street, you might be very interested.

According to the agenda, the committee will consider four bills on Wednesday. If you’d like to listen in, or express your opinion, come to the meeting. It’s in the AV (audio-visual) room on the third floor of City Hall.

Policing the police, part 2

“It’s our policy not to discuss personnel matters.”

That’s the standard answer reporters get when we call a ranking officer at a law enforcement agency and ask if any steps have been taken regarding an allegation of officer misconduct.

“But the public has the right to know if public servants…” we counter, only to run into another stock reply: “The results of internal investigations, if one was conducted, are confidential.” And that’s usually the end of it, because both of us know that internal records are protected by a Freedom of Information Act exemption, and if the police don’t volunteer any additional information, the press has no way of compelling them to produce it.

I ran into this very issue when I tried to figure out last year if any disciplinary action had been taken against any of the four troopers — Jason S. Crane, Paul A. Green, Kristy L. Layne and John K. Rapp Jr. — reportedly involved in the alleged June 2007 beating of Charleston lawyer Roger A. Wolfe while in police custody (and the alleged effort to cover up the incident).

Astute Gazette readers will recall that Layne was the trooper who issued tickets outside former Kanawha Circuit Judge Lyne Ranson’s wedding in July 2007. (Ranson told the Gazette that she felt that Layne and her boyfriend W.C. Moyers, a Kanawha County Sheriff’s deputy, targeted her guests because Ranson represented Moyers’ ex-wife in their divorce proceedings.) That incident led to Gov. Joe Manchin, who attended the reception, calling Kanawha County Sheriff Mike Rutherford at home.

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Policing the police (and their attorneys)

Charleston lawyer Roger A. Wolfe’s civil lawsuit against the State Police and four of its troopers over his alleged beating while in police custody is still in the discovery phase, and already things have gotten contentious.

(As I reported earlier, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has launched a grand jury investigation into the alleged beating. But this is a separate issue to any possible criminal charges.)

Wolfe asked for copies of the personnel files of the four troopers alleged to have been involved — Paul A. Green, Kristy L. Layne, Jason S. Crane and John K. Rapp Jr. — as well as any records of complaints of misconduct that may have been made against each trooper and any disciplinary action that may have been taken. This is hardly an unusual request during discovery, when both sides exchange information they plan on using during trial.

Incredibly, the State Police’s attorneys, John A. Hoyer and Virginia Grottendieck Lanham, refused, saying that the police have an exemption from disclosing this material under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. And it’s true, the FOIA law does not require the disclosure of “[r]ecords of law-enforcement agencies that deal with the detection and investigation of crime and the internal records and notations of such law-enforcement agencies which are maintained for internal use in matters relating to law enforcement.”

Except…

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Last week’s announcement by the U.S. Coast Guard made it sound like things were all hunky dory between the CG and the federal Chemical Safety Board.

Coast Guard officials, you will recall, approved the board’s plans to release a preliminary report on the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at Bayer CropScience’s plant in Institute.

When I blogged about the deal, reported by The Associated Press, I headlined the Sustained Outrage entry, “A win for the public’s right to know.”

Alas … It appears I blogged too soon, at least according to the Coast Guard’s letter to the Chemical Safety Board on this issue. I’ve posted the letter here, so read for yourself.

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A win for the public’s right to know

Bayer CropScience appears to have lost its effort to keep Kanawha Valley residents from learning details of the federal Chemical Safety Board’s investigation of the August explosion that killed two workers at the company’s Institute plant.

Coast Guard officials have cleared for public release a preliminary report the board plans to issue at an April 23 public meeting, according to an Associated Press report.

As reported first in the Gazette, the board had initially called off such a meeting, after Bayer layers claimed information gathered by board investigators was secret under an obscure Coast Guard regulation meant to protect barge facilities at chemical plants from terrorist attacks.

C8 secrecy: The WV DHHR edition

We had a story in this morning’s Sunday Gazette-Mail about new recommendations from federal health officials that the state warn certain Parkersburg-area residents  — pregnant women, the elderly, children — about not drinking C8-polluted water.

It’s taken the federal ATSDR more than 3 years to come up with this formal recommendation. And it’s still not clear when — or if — the state Department of Health and Human Resources will do anything to actually pass this advice on to the public.

But as our story pointed out, there was actually a Fact Sheet prepared a few years ago that could have done this job. The state of Ohio’s health officials issued the Fact Sheet and guidance for doctors in advising their patients on the issue.

WV DHHR prepared the same materials. They just never issued them. Want to see? Here is the document, complete with the West Virginia agency’s logo …