PARKERSBURG - Wood County commissioners decided Monday to appoint a committee to come up with proposed meeting agenda procedures.
During a meeting last week, Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton reviewed the state's Open Meetings Law and provided copies of West Virginia Ethics Commission advisory opinions to commissioners.
The commission has come under criticism recently after acting on a number of items, including funding appropriations, without giving the public prior notice on their meeting agenda. 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."
Photo by Pamela Brust
Wood County commissioners appointed a committee to research and provide suggestions for handling their meeting agendas to assure compliance with the Open Meetings Act.
Wharton told Wayne Dunn, as the commission president, it is up to him to assure compliance with the Open Meetings Act.
Part of the discussion Monday related to the new planning meeting, which Dunn proposed the commission conduct.
"We need to list whatever we will be discussing at those planning meetings, then if action is needed, we move it to another agenda," Commissioner Blair Couch said.
* "The chair of the governing body has primary responsibility for seeing that a public meeting is conducted in an orderly and legal fashion, including ensuring that the members do not stray into deliberating toward a decision on a matter which is not on the meeting agenda, and which does not represent a bona fide emergency."
* The West Virginia Ethics Commission Committee on Open Governmental Meetings has recognized the act "creates a tension between allowing government to function and the public to participate in a meaningful manner in public agency decision making."
* "Work session, where a quorum of a governing body is present and matters requiring official action by the governing body are discussed are meetings subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Act."
Couch earlier obtained sample agendas from other county commissions in the state to use for comparison purposes. Some of the counties had agendas 14 pages or more in length, including lists all their invoices, exonerations and other paperwork they would be considering.
"I talked to the ethics commission and we don't have to list all the bills. We can just state they will be available to the public if they would like to review them two days before the meeting. It would be a change in our procedures though because right now they are not due until 9:30 of our commission meeting day," Couch said.
Couch suggested the commissioners appoint a committee including one commissioner, the prosecutor and county administrator Marty Seufer to come up with recommended procedures for the other commissioners to review. They could then be forwarded to the ethics commission for review, and any suggestions before implementation.
"As another part of our changes, one Thursday was set aside for probate matters only. I think we need to give more leeway there for other business that needs to come before us instead of making people wait," Couch said.
Couch also suggested instead of just having everyone who wants to see the commission on a meeting day report in at 9 a.m. and wait their turn, to have the administrator's office ask appointees if they prefer a specific appointment time.
"I know we are trying to be more efficient, but efficiency to those coming in means how fast they get their services or have their meeting, and you can't have efficiency at the expense of checks and balances," Couch said referring to the Open Meetings Act.
The commissioners voted to name Wharton, Seufer and Couch to serve on the committee and report back with their findings at the next regularly scheduled commission meeting, which will be Feb. 21. Monday, Feb. 18, is a holiday and the commission will not be meeting, and the commission is not scheduled to have a regular meeting on Thursday, Feb. 14. They will only be convening for Board of Equalization and Review hearings on that date.
The commission used to meet 9:30 a.m.-noon and afternoons as needed every Monday and Thursday. Under the new format, which was voted in 2-1 in January, they meet Mondays from 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. or "until finished." Commissioners are to meet on the first Thursday of the month for planning and agenda items and on the third Thursdays for probate matters. The second and fourth Thursday meetings were eliminated, "unless needed." If a holiday falls on a Monday, the commissioners may meet on Thursday that week if deemed necessary. The lone dissenting vote was cast by Couch.
Violation of the Open Meetings Act is punishable by possibly injunctive relief requiring a governing body to rescind an action taken in violation of the Act, and 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.