Sustained Outrage

Secret meetings, March 6, 2009

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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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Don’t call us — not right away, at least

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Statehouse correspondent Phil Kabler reported in today’s Gazette that Gov. Joe Manchin’s bill (SB 279)  to require industrial plants to report significant accidents to authorities within 15 minutes had cleared the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee.

As Phil explained, the committee’s substitute for Manchin’s bill includes language under which failure to report incidents within 15 minutes would carry a fine of “up to $100,000.”

It’s worth noting that this change is a potentially significant weakening from the governor’s proposal. As he did with the original legislation requiring reporting of mining accidents within 15 minutes (following the delayed reporting in both the Sago Mine disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire), Manchin mandated a fine of $100,000 for reporting violations. The committee’s version allows fines of less than that amount, at the discretion of the Director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

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Gov. Joe Manchin’s daughter, Brooke, isn’t a lobbyist. She’s not registered as a lobbyist with the state. But she’s certainly keeping the company of lobbyists these days.

brookemanchin1.jpgA week after Democratic Party Chairman  Nick Casey’s law firm hired Brooke Manchin as an “administrative assistant” — Casey says she’s part secretary, part file clerk — Manchin attended a West Virginia Chamber of Commerce Legislative breakfast meeting at the Charleston Marriott hotel along with two lobbyists — Joe Martin and Frank Hartman — from Casey’s firm, chamber director Steve Roberts confirmed today.

About 70 people — mostly state and local business leaders — attended the Feb. 24 legislative briefing breakfast.  The topic: health care reform, and Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, and state Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, were the featured speakers. At the start, like everyone else, Brooke Manchin stood up and introduced herself. Roberts couldn’t recall if she said anything about her new job.

Martin and Hartman work for LGCR Government Solutions, the new lobbying arm of Casey’s law firm — Lewis, Glasser, Casey and Rollins.  Martin, a former aide to the governor, hasn’t registered as a lobbyist with the state Ethics Commission — though he’s attended one of their training seminars. He previously secured a special “revolving-door” exemption from the commission to lobby immediately, instead of having to wait a year.

Casey says Brooke Manchin won’t register as a lobbyist, and won’t go anywhere near the Capitol.

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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Wake up and smell the sewage

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper stepped up the battle to force a merger between the Upper Kanawha Valley Public Service District, town of Pratt and Chelyan Public Service District on Wednesday when he filed complaints with both the state Department of Environmental Protection and Public Service Commission against officials running Pratt’s sewer system.

The system, which treats sewage from Paint Creek in the Upper Kanawha Valley Public Service district, has been plagued by maintenance problems and has repeatedly allowed raw sewage to escape into Paint Creek and the Kanawha River. Pratt is already in violation of a DEP order requiring the town to hire a qualified, fulltime sewer operator and fix the recurring problems.

County officials believe Pratt’s sewer problems are now so great there is no hope the town can fix them alone. The town’s sewer and water systems are on the verge of being placed in receivership.

Carper and other members of the county commission recently brokered a deal to give Pratt an immediate $100,000 loan if they will agree to let qualified staff from Chelyan manage Pratt’s sewer plant.

But despite a new spirit of cooperation between new Pratt Mayor Joe Douglas, other town officials Upper Kanawha Valley management, it doesn’t appear officials in Pratt fully realize the seriousness of their plight.

Despite the urging of Carper and other state and county officials that Pratt must agree to an operation and management agreement (O&M agreement) immediately to fix the town’s sewer problems, Pratt officials are apparently still not ready to come to the negotiating table.

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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Some West Virginia county school board members want to receive a salary that pays them half of what their county commissioners earn. Sally Cann of Harrison County told the Sunday Gazette-Mail last month it’s a matter of fairness. “It’s a 24/7 job. There’s nobody else that’s paid like that,” Cann said. “You look at our budget and you look at county commission’s. Our budget is more than the county’s. So we don’t think it’s fair.”

Debbie Phillips, a Putnam County school board member, disagreed.

“I’m very happy with what [the pay] is. I almost feel guilty sometimes taking it,” she said last month. “And I don’t know how you justify it in today’s times. I’d rather see the money go to the employees in the classroom and the central office.”

Leadership within the West Virginia School Board Association, like President Rick Snuffer, have pushed the Legislature to make changes. By law, county board members are paid $160 per meeting, up to 50 meetings. The maximum a school board member can collect in one year is $8,000.

Professor Mike Cunningham at Marshall University drafted a breakdown of county commissioners’ salary in 2008-2009 compared to school board members’ pay for meetings they attended in 2007. It was presented to members of a legislative committee in October. Howard O’Cull, executive director of the West Virginia School Board Association, submitted a copy to the Gazette.

*Explanation of document: In Barbour County, for instance, the spreadsheet lists the county’s student enrollment, total board of education expenditures and revenue, the number of meetings board members attended and the total compensation ($27,200) for all five board members in 2007, not for each board member. Also, it lists board members’ pay as a percentage of annual expenditures.

Likewise, Cunningham noted commissioner salaries as a percentage of the annual budget, a single Barbour County commissioner’s salary ($25,080) and the county revenue for 2008-2009.

In a couple counties, data is incomplete.