Competing meetings result in chaos
by Ron Gregory
o RICHWOOD – Tyranny is defined in the dictionary as “cruel, unreasonable, or arbitrary use of power or control.”
o Generally, the word is used to describe leadership in a third-world country or, perhaps, even the southern West Virginia coalfield counties and towns. A reporter’s one-evening observation of Richwood’s chaotic city government confirms that most other places don’t hold a candle to the Nicholas County town of 3,000 people.
o Decimated by a 1,000-year flood a year ago and facing the imminent prospect of losing their high school and middle school to the county seat in Summersville, Richwood’s city council has decided to devote its attention to an apparent coup d’etat aimed at Mayor Bob Henry Baber.
o Nothing could have been more obvious Thursday evening, when town residents packed council chambers for what most (including Baber) thought was a regular bi-monthly meeting of the group. Although council had posted an “agenda” for a “special meeting” at the exact time and location of the regular meeting, Baber arrived at city hall prepared to preside as usual over the regular council meeting.
o Upon arrival, Baber told his attorney, former South Charleston Mayor Richard Robb, that he had been told he could not preside and could only enter the building and remain in the “public” section.
o When Robb asked who had issued those orders, the mayor said Police Chief Lloyd Cogar, who was standing nearby on the parking lot. The attorney approached Cogar, who basically explained to Robb that he had, in fact, told Baber that he could not “interfere” with the meeting. Cogar said he did not want to become involved in the controversy but was following the direct orders of Nicholas County Prosecutor Jonathan Sweeney.
o A conversation ensued between Robb and Cogar by which the lawyer inquired as to Sweeney’s “authority” for giving such orders. Holding a chapter of the West Virginia code in his hand, Robb said he simply wanted to know where, in code, the Prosecutor cited authority for city council to ban its elected mayor from presiding at a council meeting.
o For several weeks, a controversy has continued about Baber’s service as mayor. It apparently came to a head two weeks ago when council may have voted to place the mayor on “paid administrative leave,” perhaps because of questions about a state-issued purchasing card used by the mayor after the flood. When various sources pointed out to council and Baber that neither the code nor the city charter permit “paid administrative leave” for elected officials, council apparently contacted a Charleston/Morgantown law firm to represent them.
o Although special meetings have been called and subsequently cancelled by council before Thursday night, the agenda they prepared for the “special meeting” included only one item: approval of a proposal by Kay, Casto & Chaney to represent them. When queried after the meeting as to when and how council negotiated a proposal with the firm, council member Chuck Toussieng repeatedly told a reporter he did not know. He finalized his comments to the reporter by asking if the reporter was a “resident of Richwood. If not, I’m not answering your questions.”
o When some of those assembled in the crowd were asking similar questions and the reporter pointed toward them, Toussieng said “I am not dealing with a hostile crowd.”
o Council also did not provide the public with a copy of the contract they proposed to enter into with Kay, Casto & Chaney.
o After the sidewalk discussions before the 7 p.m. scheduled start of both meetings arrived, Robb accompanied Baber inside the building and instructed him to “sit in your usual chair as mayor.” When the pair entered the council chamber, they found City Recorder Chris Drennen sitting in the chair’s position apparently prepared to preside as what council has extraordinarily named “interim mayor.” Toussieng later confirmed that the city charter provides no support for “paid administrative leave” or the appoint of an “interim mayor.” He also told some in the audience that council intends to follow through on its proposal to appoint an “interim recorder” as well.
o Baber pulled a chair up beside Drennen and the two sat side-by-side in clear anticipation of the meetings about to begin.
o When Baber arose at 7 p.m. to declare the regular meeting in session and call for prayer, several of the members objected. All refused to stand as the audience, Baber and others rose for the prayer. Some commented that “there’s one minute to go,” while Toussieng and others, including Drennen, declared only she could call the meeting to order.
o After a lengthy delay, Baber again called for prayer and eventually all members rose for the occasion. When Baber attempted to go into the regular agenda, he was shouted down by council members, primarily Toussieng, who told him the special meeting was called for only one purpose and Drennen would preside.
o Drennen then called the special meeting to order and there was a rapid-fire motion and second to approve the Kay, Casto & Chaney contract. In response to a question as to how council could afford a new attorney when they were not even making payments to their former lawyer, council members said that matter would more appropriately be discussed at a finance committee meeting.
o Robb attempted to speak on behalf of Baber, explaining that he is an experienced attorney and former South Charleston mayor. Robb said he and Baber are willing to work with council on the purchasing card issues but the mayor will not give up his elected position. Robb asked several times where the authority lies “with the state code or your charter to put a mayor on administrative leave and relieve him of the power of his office?”
o That question was never answered but when Toussieng, obviously irritated by Robb’s presentation, interrupted the lawyer, Chief Cogar spoke up to tell Robb he could not talk. At first, Cogar seemed to threaten Robb with jail, telling him that if he said “another word you’re going to a place you don’t want to go.” Later, he said if Robb spoke he would be forcibly removed from the building.
o That silenced Robb, who stood staring at Cogar. Drennen then quickly called for a vote and declared the motion passed. When Baber, still standing, tried to enter the next order of business on the regular agenda, council arose and said they were not participating. Several left the building, although Toussieng remained and talked with a limited number of those in attendance.
o Robb, who had spoken with Nicholas County dispatch before the meeting began and asked for a phone call from the prosecutor said he had still not received one as of noon, Friday. “I respect the power of the prosecutor as much as anybody,” he said, “But I want to know under what authority he is advising council they can treat the mayor like this. The mayor was elected by the people; not council.”
o Baber said he remains optimistic that problems will work and “we can all concentrate on rebuilding Richwood.” Asked if he is willing to pursue his activities as mayor, he answered with a strong, “yes. I was encouraged by the size of last night’s crowd that turned out to support me.”
o Cogar said he is notifying Kay, Casto & Chaney that he does not approve of their employment and will not support them being paid. “How does the city council hire a lawyer that does not represent the mayor, too,” he asked.
o State officials are being notified of the conduct of last night’s meetings with the hope that someone in authority will enforce the state code with respect to Richwood city government.