Sustained Outrage

Show us the money

Last month, as my colleague Doug Smock on the sports desk reported, Marshall University reached a settlement with former compliance director David Ridpath. Ridpath, you may recall, sued the university, former football coach Bob Pruett and other officials, maintaining they turned him into the scapegoat for major NCAA violations within the athletic department.

Roger Forman, Ridpath’s lawyer, told the Gazette that Marshall had agreed to write a letter to the NCAA clearing Ridpath of responsibility for the violations that landed the school on probation. Oh, and there was an undisclosed cash settlement.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers signed an order on Feb. 2, giving the parties 30 days to iron out the details and submit an agreed order of dismissal for his approval. Barring that, Chambers is free to dismiss the Ridpath case without prejudice, meaning the parties would have to refile to get the case reinstated on Chambers’ docket.

That was 32 days ago.

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WVU Secrecy V

Number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9
Number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9
Number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9, number…

— Lennon-McCartney

The West Virginia University Board of Governors continues to thumb its nose at the public. The Associated Press reports this afternoon that the board has selected its pick to be the next president of West Virginia’s flagship university.

But as the AP also reports, the board didn’t release the name of its choice:

The candidate of choice is only being referred to as Candidate No. 9 until he is approved by the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission.

When it wrote the state’s Open Governmental Proceedings Act, the Legislature specifically tried to prevent exactly this sort of nonsense.

Here’s what it says in W.Va. Code 6-9A-8(a):

…The members of a public agency may not deliberate, vote, or otherwise take official action upon any matter by reference to a letter, number or other designation or other secret device or method, which may render it difficult for persons attending a meeting of the public agency to understand what is being deliberated, voted or acted upon.

If the Board of Governors wants to vote based on numeric codes, they have to give the public the codes. Here’s what the law says:

…This subsection does not prohibit a public agency from deliberating, voting or otherwise taking action by reference to an agenda, if copies of the agenda, sufficiently worded to enable the public to understand what is being deliberated, voted or acted upon, are available for public inspection at the meeting.

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Except for the West Virginia University presidential search, it looks like a pretty good week for open government in the Mountain State.

Today’s issue of the State Register lists only  one meeting notice that didn’t comply with the mandate of publication five days prior to the meeting date contained in the state Open Governmental Proceedings Act.

The agency responsible? The Division of Forestry’s Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund Board of Trustees.

If you also look at emergency meeting notices, though, one other agency announced such a meeting without explaining the “facts and circumstances of the emergency” that requires “immediate official action.”  That notice, from the Physical Therapy Board, said only that it was holding an “emergency meeting to discuss [an] emergency rule.”

WVU Secrecy IV

We shouldn’t pick on the WVU Board of Governors for shrouding the selection of a new university president in secrecy (See WVU Secrecy I, WVU Secrecy II and WVU Secrecy III) … because they’re not the only ones hiding behind closed doors.

The state Higher Education Policy Commission is also keeping the public out. Commission members scheduled a meeting for 4 p.m. today in Charleston. Like the WVU Board of Governors, they sidestepped the state Open Meetings Act requirement that agencies announce their meetings 5 days ahead of time, by calling today’s gathering an “emergency meeting.”

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WVU Secrecy III

Will Friday’s meeting of the West Virginia University Board of Governors — where board members are expected to name a new university president — be legal?

Remember that on Monday, WVU announced its selection committee (while meeting in private, unannounced meetings — See WVU Secrecy I)  had named two finalists. As my colleague Davin White reported, WVU said its governing board planned to pick one of the two on Friday, speeding up its selection process because apparently one of finalists won’t be available if a decision isn’t made really quickly.

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WVU Secrecy II

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(The WVU Board of Governors: From Left to Right: Front row: William O. Nutting, Parry G. Petroplus(former member), Raymond J. Lane, Paul Martinelli, Carolyn Long, Ellen Cappellanti, Dr. Thomas S. Clark, Dr. J. Steven Kite Back row: Oliver Luck, John T. (Ted) Mattern, Dr. Charles Vest, Stephen P. Goodwin, Jason Parsons, Edward L. Robinson, and James W. Dailey, II (Not pictured: Andrew A. (Drew) Payne, III and Diane Lewis)

williams.jpgclements.jpgOn Friday, the West Virginia University Board of Governors is expected to select a new president for the state’s flagship university. The two finalists are Gregory H. Williams (left), president of City College of New York since 2001, and James P. Clements, provost at Towson University in Maryland.

It seems likely that the Board of Governors will have all of its discussion about which candidate is right for WVU behind closed doors, in a private, executive session. Already, The Associated Press reports, both candidates — in Morgantown for meetings with faculty, staff and students — are scheduled to meet privately with the WVU board. And the board’s meeting agenda for Friday already states that the board members will hold an executive session to “discuss personnel matters related to the WVU Presidential Search.”

The WVU board, like most government agencies in West Virginia, will pretend that it is required to have these discussions about personnel issues in private. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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WVU Secrecy I

During and in the aftermath of the Heather Manchin Bresch  scandal, West Virginia University’s Board of Governors had its share of problems complying with open government requirements.

First, when Mike Garrison was resigning, the WVU board tried to hide the details of his departure agreement from the public and the media, as Emily Corio from West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported at the time.

Next, the WVU board shrouded the hiring of interim university President Peter Magrath in similar secrecy,  by voting on a motion to approve an agreement that no one from the public — including reporters covering the meeting — could see, again as Emily Corio explained:

As an audience member, it was unclear to me what the board was talking about and voting on, and this makes being a reporter difficult.  How am I supposed to tell listeners what happened at this meeting if public officials use vague language, issue statements to some reporters and not others, and then refuse to give straight answers to reporters when asked?

More importantly, how can you, a member of the public be informed and engaged if you do not have access to this information?

williams.jpgclements.jpgWell, now the WVU board is poised to hire a permanent replacement for Magrath at a meeting on Friday. The board’s presidential search process has narrowed the choice to two finalists, Gregory H. Williams (left), president of City College of New York since 2001, and James P. Clements, provost at Towson University in Maryland.

But up until now, the entire process has been done behind closed doors, with no public scrutiny or accountability.  Along the way, did the WVU board again violate the state’s Open Governmental Proceedings Act?

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When officials in the town of Dunbar announced in January they were going to initiate a $10 an hour “research fee” to look up public information, we sat up and took notice.

City officials said the fee was necessary because city clerks were being inundated with requests for information under the state Freedom of Information Act. Mayor Jack Yeager said Dunbar City Clerk Ron Rowley has been off the job with an illness for a year, leaving two clerks to deal with all the city’s business, including responding to Freedom Information Act requests.

Yeager said Rowley will not resign, and city officials cannot legally just appoint a replacement. He said the “research fee” was put in place to pay someone to look up documents people ask for under the Freedom of Information Act.

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Secret courts I

Later this month, national media groups will celebrate “Sunshine Week,” to call attention to the need for more openness in our government. Did somebody in West Virginia’s court system declare last week “secrecy week” and just not tell us?

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First, there was Monongalia County Circuit Judge Susan Tucker, who sealed the lawsuit filed against West Virginia University and various university officials by former provost Gerald Lang. Lang, of course, resigned from his administrative post last year over his involvement in the decision to award Gov. Joe Manchin’s daughter a master’s degree. Tucker later unsealed the lawsuit, but her reasons for initially sealing it remain unclear.

halloran.jpgThen, there’s the curious case of Kanawha County Magistrate Tim Halloran, who closed his courtroom to the media and the public during preliminary hearing for a Charleston police officer charged with soliciting sex with a minor. When called seeking some explanation for his closing the proceeding, Halloran said:

If you’re calling about Friday night, I run a courtroom, not a newsroom.

(If that weren’t enough, Halloran’s response after that has been to demand that news reporters who park near the courthouse be ticketed.)

So perhaps a quick review is needed of what West Virginia’s law requires regarding open courts…

First, there’s Article III, Section 17 of the West Virginia Constitution:

The courts of this state shall be open, and every person, for an injury done to him, in his person, property or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law; and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.

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Secret meetings

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The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments of government they have created.

That’s the preamble to the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act. Among other things, the law requires state and local government bodies — everything from a city council to the state Board of Public Works — to let citizens know when and where they are meeting, so anyone who wants to attend can do so.

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