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Wood County Commission approves interim canvass workers

PARKERSBURG — The Wood County Commission approved lists of possible emergency interim successors who will be able to complete the election canvassing process next week.

The canvass is expected to go forward at 9 a.m. Monday, Nov. 23, at the Wood County Courthouse after having been delayed the past two Mondays due to illness and a lack of an in-person quorum of county commissioners.

On Thursday, during a remotely held commission meeting, Commission President Blair Couch and Commissioner Jimmy Colombo approved the lists of Emergency Interim Successors, now to be referred to as “Caretaker Commissioners,” to complete the canvassing process if the elected commissioner cannot be there.

Commissioner Robert Tebay did not attend the commission meeting in person or by phone, but had submitted a list for approval.

Commissioners could submit a list of three to seven names.

The list for Tebay includes his son, attorney Rob Tebay; Lubeck Public Service District Commissioner David Lawson; and Wood County Sheriff Steve Stephens.

Colombo’s list is Wood County 911 Director Rick Woodyard; former Wood County Commissioner Steve Gainer; and Parkersburg City Attorney Joe Santer.

Couch’s list includes his wife, Kim Couch, the Executive Director of the Camden Clark Foundation; former Wood County Assessor Rich Shaffer; former Wood County Commissioner Holmes “Butch” Shaver; President and CEO of the Greater Parkersburg Convention & Visitors Bureau Mark Lewis; local Republican Rob Cornelius; former Wood County Commissioner Rick Modesitt; and former Wood County Commissioner Wayne Dunn.

Each list was presented in the order of preference each commissioner would like to see the people serve if they themselves are unable to.

Couch said they were advised by Wood County Prosecutor Pat Lefebure in the last day or so not to go with current elected officials due to possible concerns. Tebay could not be reached after he submitted his list, but Couch did not think it would come to having to call up his third choice.

So Couch and the others decided on people who have a wide range of experience, some who had previously served in government, have non-elected positions within the county and some outside of government.

Tebay and Wood County Clerk Mark Rhodes had recently tested positive for COVID-19. Their time out could run into the 30-day limit the commission has to review the challenge/provisional ballots and to count the remaining absentee ballots.

Colombo has been out dealing with an a-fib issue with his heart and is remaining away from people as a precaution as the pandemic is continuing.

Both commissioners are expecting to be able to do the majority of their commission duties in the coming days by phone.

However, state law requires the county to have two commissioners in the building during the canvass to review provisional ballots and to oversee the hand-count. This prompted the appointment of the Caretaker Commissioners under a part of state code that has allowed municipalities to appoint a temporary mayor of the elected mayor was going to be out of town or otherwise unavailable.

Rhodes said he has deputy clerks who can act on his behalf and sign off on anything the commission would need.

Rhodes has been in contact with the health department and believes his initial symptoms, a sinus headache, was present before he got his COVID test last week. He is nearing the end of the timeframe from when his initial symptoms first appeared. He has remained fever-free. He believes he might be cleared to return to work on Monday if he remains symptom-free. If not, one of his deputies will step in.

“I should be there on Monday as long as I remain fever-free and symptom-free,” Rhodes said. “If not, one of the deputy clerks will step in and take care of everything.”

Rhodes said he has talked to some of the people on the lists to tell them what they will have to do and what is expected of them through the canvass process.

Couch said he is planning to be present Monday. Colombo is not sure at this point if he will be there, he will see how he is feeling. He has a Caretaker Commissioner in place, if needed.

“It would be my intention to meet my responsibilities if I am able,” he said, adding he will see how he feels by Monday.

Commissioners approved an order explaining the role of each Caretaker Commissioner to conduct the ballot canvassing, oversee the hand-count of three randomly picked precincts and certify the election results. They will also swear in the Caretaker Commissioners before getting started. The order will specify the positions will run for one week.

“This will be just for canvassing the election,” Couch said, adding these people will not take on any other duties of the county commission.

Last week, county officials had 142 absentee ballots to be counted, along with 388 provisionals that must be reviewed before they can be counted. Provisional ballots are where the voter had an issue where they weren’t registered to vote, moved and are voting in their new precinct but their registration has not been updated, poll workers voting where they were stationed and other issues. The commission reviews those and determines which ballots can be counted and which ones will have to be rejected.

Still to be determined by the canvass is the outcome of the Parkersburg City Council District 9 race. Republican Austin Richards led incumbent Democrat Jeff Fox by 23 votes according to the count on Election Day, but Rhodes has said there are 20 provisional ballots and eight absentees still to be counted, which could tip the balance if all but two go to Fox.

Officials said Wood County is one of three counties statewide that still have to certify their election results.

“They are also scheduled to meet Monday so it should be done then,” Rhodes said.

Couch said he wants to make the Caretaker Commissioners part of the regular appointments the commission does at the beginning of each year, in case the need would arise again for someone to have to step in on a temporary basis.

“It will become a habit that we update our lists,” Couch said. “I don’t know of any other commission who had to do this.”

If a commissioner would not be able to complete their duties of office and require a permanent replacement, the commission would still appoint someone from the proper political party and district to fill that role if it comes up.

Contact Brett Dunlap at bdunlap@newsandsentinel.com

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