PARKERSBURG - Last Thursday Wood County commissioners took action on a number of issues not listed on their public meeting agenda, including approving funding for a number of projects.
According to the West Virginia Ethics Commission, under the West Virginia Open Meetings Act, "Agendas must give reasonable notice to the public of what issues will be discussed. Specifically, any matter requiring the governing body to take official action must be listed on the agenda."
The commission's agenda listed only two items last Thursday: An annexation petition from the city of Parkersburg and a meeting with representatives of the Multi-Cultural Festival relating to a funding request. The festival officials did not come to the meeting.
The commissioners voted to allocate $48,000 from a closed housing bond issue to an energy program; gave the 911 director permission to seek bids for the purchase of new equipment, decided against raising the mileage reimbursement rate for county employees to the new federal rate, and approved funding for additional lighting for the new parking lot. The commissioners also met with officials from the senior citizen's center board asking to appoint a liaison to their board; discussed several funding requests from community agencies, talked to the new Community Corrections Day Report Center director about personnel, and conducted an executive session relating to personnel in the sheriff's tax office. The commission also signed off on salary and personnel changes submitted from the sheriff.
The two agendized items were not set for specific times and the other actions/ meetings were not listed on the public agenda at all.
Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton was at a meeting out of town when last Thursday's county commission meeting occurred. After being contacted of the commission's actions, Wharton said he asked for an appointment with them. He will meet with them at their planning/agenda meeting scheduled for Feb. 7.
"We will discuss the structure of the agenda to make sure it complies with the Open Meetings Act," Wharton said. The prosecutor said part of the conference he attended included a speaker on the Open Meetings Act.
"I just want to talk to them. They have made some changes in their meeting structure for the new year and I want to make sure the actions they take under the new structure will comply with the Open Meetings Act. The statute itself is written in a manor that is subject to some interpretation, and as a result there are many advisory opinions." Wharton said he is reviewing several advisory opinions issued by the West Virginia Committee on Open Government Meetings as they relate to agenda issues.
"We are trying to pull all the information together to have a discussion and hopefully come up with something that everyone is happy with," Wharton said.
During Monday's meeting, Commissioner Blair Couch told fellow commissioners they need to review their agendas.
Couch provided research he did on other counties and how they handle their agendas.
"Fifteen counties had agendas that were posted online. Jefferson County's agenda was about 141 pages long," he said. Some of the agendas contain attachments showing all invoices, tax exonerations and other documents that were scheduled for action that day, many, many pages. I've never seen that done before. Kanawha County's agenda was 14 pages long," he said.
"Pocahontas County does time-specific appointments on their agenda. Some counties require the public to sign in in order to speak," Couch noted.
"Harrison County has some time-specific agenda items, Morgan County has action items, administration items with time specific, then has afternoon session to allow the public to speak," Couch said.
"I think we can be better. I think the public would like to see us do better. We need to revamp our agendas. We can deal with it at our first scheduled work meeting in February. But if we make a motion to do something, take action, it should be on the agenda," Couch said.
Commission President Wayne Dunn said he was open to changing the agenda and was willing to listen to any suggestions, but fellow Commissioner Steve Gainer took a much different attitude.
"We haven't done anything wrong. What the hell are you doing. What's your point. We haven't done anything wrong," Gainer said to Couch.
"I know we are all three doing things for the right reasons, but we could do better," Couch said.
"We can always do better," Dunn said.
Procedures for executive sessions have also been raised.
According to the Ethics Commission, "a governing body may not decide in advance of a meeting that it will go into executive session. The agenda may indicate that it is anticipated that a matter may be discussed in executive session, but the governing body may only go into executive session by a majority vote of the members present. The agenda item must be descriptive enough to put the public on notice of the nature of the matter being discussed regardless of whether it will be discussed in an open session or executive session."
The Ethics Commission has no role in enforcing the Open Meetings Act and does not investigate complaints of violations. The act provides that any citizen may file a civil action in circuit court within 120 days after the action or decision complained of occurred. Only the court has the power to compel compliance with the act or annul a decision made in violation of the act. Anyone who willfully and knowingly violates the provisions of the act is subject to criminal prosecution for a misdemeanor.
In civil actions, in addition to injunctive relief requiring a governing body to rescind an action taken in violation of the act, the prevailing party may obtain attorneys' fees and costs. If a public official is criminally prosecuted and found guilty, he or she may be fined up to $500 for a first offense.