Options to remove Parkersburg City Council members limited
Residents have called for Eric Barber to be censured, ousted over Facebook comments
PARKERSBURG — Several people this week demanded Parkersburg City Council take action against Councilman Eric Barber over recent social media posts, but officials say their options in that regard are limited.
A Facebook comment in which Barber wrote “Better get you’re (sic) coathangers ready liberals” after it was clear Brett Kavanaugh would be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, drew ire not only locally but beyond as it was repeatedly shared and made the websites of publications like Newsweek and The Hill. One of the articles was recently shared by actor and activist George Takei, who has 10 million followers on Facebook.
Most people who read the remark interpreted it as a reference to unsafe abortion practices some fear could return if Kavanaugh is part of an effort to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision. Barber said the post was in reference to an incident when a person protesting Kavanaugh’s nomination threw a coat hanger in his face, but admitted the post was “poorly worded … and insensitive.”
On Tuesday, Barber was sued in Wood County Circuit Court by Parkersburg resident Douglas Evans who claimed the first-term councilman defamed him in a Sept. 14 Facebook post by suggesting Evans might be a pedophile.
Prior to the public forum at Tuesday’s meeting, Council President John Reed read a statement signed by the mayor and all members of council except Barber and Councilman J.R. Carpenter. It said the elected officials “emphatically disagree” with Barber’s statement on social media and also addressed calls from residents for Barber to be sanctioned or removed from office.
“The undersigned further understand that each individual council member maintains a right of individual free speech and that no other council member holds any right to (censor) that free speech,” Reed said. “We further understand that City Council as a body holds no powers to remove another council member from office, that power being retained by the electors within that council member’s district only.”
During Tuesday’s public forum, Parkersburg resident Russ Bowers said Barber should be censured.
“Matter of fact, I am demanding you censure Mr. Barber for his comments,” he said. “He has embarrassed the entire city, all the residents of it, and I think that would be the minimum I would do.”
Reed initially seemed to indicate that censuring Barber was not an option. But he and City Attorney Joe Santer this week clarified that it was possible under Robert’s Rules of Order but it could not have been done Tuesday.
“That’s going to require a resolution,” Santer said. “That’s going to require it to be on the agenda.”
Since the agenda had already been announced, such an action could not have occurred until council’s Oct. 23 meeting, Reed said.
“And council just didn’t feel like they wanted to wait that long,” he said.
Santer said a censure is a formal reprimand, which council essentially accomplished with the statement Tuesday.
“I think they’ve already done it,” he said.
Carpenter said he did not sign the statement because it specifically referenced Barber rather than all council members, including future council members.
Bowers and others called on council to pass a social media policy with standards of conduct that apply to employees and elected officials.
After such a policy was suggested in September, Santer said the most council could do for its members is establish guidelines, with a violation resulting in, at most, censure.
The city charter says council can declare a member’s seat vacant if they are found guilty of treason, bribery in an election or any felony while in office; no longer meets the qualifications of a council member (including residency within their district, being a qualified voter and holding no other public office); or is physically or mentally incapacitated to the point they cannot perform their duties.
The charter also provides for recall elections, which can be initiated by petition. The charter says the petition requires signatures equal to 20 percent of the total number of voters “of the City” registered for the last regular election. Total registration for the 2016 election in Parkersburg was 19,454, with 20 percent being 3,891, according to Wood County Clerk Mark Rhodes.
Santer said he believes the signature requirement should be based on the number of registered voters in the district “because nobody else could vote for him or against him.”
However, “that’s not what our charter says, and I don’t have the power or authority to make that ruling,” he said.
The district had 1,866 registered voters in 2016, which would only require 373 signatures.
“The charter says ‘the city,'” Santer said. “I think you’ve got to read it at its face right now.”
City Clerk Connie Shaffer said she’d received about half a dozen calls as of Thursday afternoon asking for information about the recall process.
At a Glance
Actions council can take against a member:
* Parkersburg City Council can censure one of its members, but that must be done by resolution, which has to be included on a meeting’s agenda.
* Council can declare a seat vacant if he or she is convicted of treason, bribery in an election or any felony while in office; ceases to fulfill any of the qualifications of a councilman as required in the charter; becomes physically or mentally incapacitated to the extent he or she is unable to properly perform the functions of the office; or is absent from five consecutive regular meetings without official approval of council.
* A recall election can be initiated with the signatures of qualified voters in the city equal to 20 percent of the total number registered to vote in the last regular municipal election.