Gregory’s Web for March 1, 2020
by Ron Gregory
My major legislative priority — as if I have a right to one — has been to see the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) strengthened.
The public has an absolute right to know what’s happening and what their government officials are doing.
It’s nice for legislators to proclaim their transparency but not especially satisfying when the FOIA law is not complied with.
Interestingly, the FOIA appears in the state Ethics Commission section of the code but gives no power to the commission to enforce it.
Last year, I worked with then-Cabell County Delegate Kelli Sabonya to put some teeth in the act. This year, GOP Delegate Daniel Linville has taken up the cause.
Agencies continue to ignore legal FOIAs and can’t be compelled to comply aside from taking the government unit to circuit court.
Although courts are almost automatic in forcing FOIA compliance, average people are often reluctant to go there. First of all, they are usually not familiar with the process and, secondly, they lack the finances to do so.
Currently, two state government officials are stonewalling FOIA requests from me. Our FOIA legislation would give the Ethics Commission power to fine any agency that ignores the law. It’s a needed change.
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One area that particularly perturbs me, being an open government advocate, are courts that lock doors while public hearings and trials are in session.
So I asked Chief Justice Tim Armstead about the issue. I particularly mentioned encountering locked courtroom doors in Jackson and Logan counties while public trials were in session.
In Jackson, at least, there was a deputy bailiff who allowed entrance when one pulled the door handle. He asked of one’s intentions and then allowed most to come inside.
I also pointed out that Jackson does not have a scanner at all entrances, as many courthouses do. Logan has long scanned visitors when they arrive.
In Logan, several years back, I was kept waiting at a locked door until magistrate court completed a hearing I wanted to attend. Once admitted, the hearing was over, the visiting presiding magistrate had left, and nobody there could figure out why the door was locked in the first place. It COULD have been to keep me from reporting to the public about a public hearing.
Last week, Armstead said he is unfamiliar with the circumstances I cited.
He added, “However the Supreme Court is committed to ensuring that the courts of our state are open to all our citizens. It is important that the people of our state have access to their court system and we want to ensure openness and transparency in the courthouses throughout the state.
“There may be certainly instances, such as those involving the privacy of children or known safety concerns, in which special precautions are justified. However, those cases are exceptions to the general rule that court proceedings should be fully open and accessible to the public.”
So, the Chief Justice is very clear. I invite readers to let me know of any instances when the courtroom door is locked for an open public hearing or trial.
And, honestly, I don’t even think it is necessary for one to tell a bailiff who you are or why you’re there. If the officer does not think you have committed a crime, it’s your right to attend with no additional requirements.
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West Virginians need to expend millions for an intermediate court system about as much as they needed to spend millions over the years on the Courtesy Patrol.
One of the outspoken opponents of creating one more level of judicial bureaucracy is Cabell County Democrat Chad Lovejoy.
If for no other reason, Lovejoy deserves re-election in District 17 for his courageous stand on this issue.
“It will mean delays for West Virginia citizens,” said Lovejoy.
Citing a decreasing caseload in West Virginia’s court system, he concluded, “I respectfully say this court is unnecessary.”
The intermediate Court, which appears on its way to passage, would act as an in-between for circuit courts and the Supreme Court.
If anyone looks at the production rate of the Supreme Court, which now handles appeals from circuit courts, he or she would shake his head in disbelief that anyone feels we need another level of appeal. Beginning as a step for civil cases only, the latest legislative revision added criminal matters as well.
There would be two divisions of intermediate court, northern and southern, with three judges each.
Republican Delegate Brandon Steele offered the amendment that added criminal appeals to the new court’s duty. That’s the same delegate who got into a verbal brawl with Mercer County Republican Eric Porterfield a week or so ago. For those interested, there were no new developments in that spat this week.
Just what we need. More judges. These six, if the bill passes, would be in office for ten years. The terms would be staggered with a salary of $130,000 per year. The judges would be elected in 2022 with a court startup date of 2023. It’s estimated it will cost $3.5 million to implement the system.
The next time you approach the Governor or a legislator about funding your pet project and they tell you the state’s broke, remind them of the intermediate court. Ask them where they “found” $3.5 million.
Go ahead and toss in my pet peeve, the Courtesy Patrol, while you’re at it. Although dramatic changes have been made, they are still a waste of funds in a state always on the verge of bankruptcy.
I’ve driven thousands of miles. I’ve broken down in rough places. But I’ve never been anywhere that someone didn’t stop to help me when they saw me and my car in need. The Courtesy Patrol would be a great service in a state overflowing with revenue. I’ve long called it the “Bob Kiss Full Employment Act,” which it used to be.
West Virginia can’t afford it.
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We remain a state too impoverished to keep up our roads while other infrastructure suffers as well.
But, by Jiminy, we have a Courtesy Patrol and will soon have an intermediate court. Voters might ask themselves in November whether a Republican Governor and legislature have improved the state over the past four years.
Are roads better, despite passage of a road bond? Are businesses pouring into the state? Did the GOP keep its promises to not raise taxes and fees?
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We have mentioned here the fact that one potential challenger to Huntington Mayor Steve Williams was ineligible to file in the 2020 primary because he changed his party registration within 60 days of the filing deadline.
It’s generally agreed that the 60-day party rule is law in this state.
I’ve speculated that my good friend, S. Marshall Wilson, inadvertently eliminated re-election chances by changing his registration within the 60 day window.
These illustrations — and there are others — caused me to wonder last week how U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is on the presidential ticket as a Democrat when he is an Independent Senator.
To this point, the best answer I have received is that Sanders is “registered” with the Federal Election Commission as a Democrat.
So, it now appears that one can be an Independent in his home state and something else if he’s running for federal office.
That brings to mind that the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey was a member of Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer-Labor party but ran nationally as a Democrat.
Sanders could win the state Democrat primary although I still doubt it. It’s hard to imagine West Virginia Democrats nominating an Independent.
As the week ended, I hadn’t managed to visit the Secretary of State’s office to look at Sanders’ candidacy form. At one time, candidates certified that they were members of the party whose nomination they sought. We’ll look at Sanders’ form early this week and report back to you.
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The wife of a Supreme Court Justice passed along an interesting article this week. Vicky Hutchison, wife of Justice John Hutchison, reminded friends of the history of the Vulcan bridge. It was fascinating in that I had never heard it.
In all my hours in Mingo County, one would think a West Virginia bridge project spearheaded by the late Soviet Union would have demanded my attention. I never heard it mentioned.
Anyway, it seems that Vulcan was a once-thriving coal mining town on the Mingo border with Kentucky.
In the early 1960s, the mines dried up and most residents moved away to find work. With no productivity, the town’s infrastructure deteriorated. The article says, even the state government forgot the town existed. Lying as it did on a fork of the Big Sandy River, there was no road connection between Vulcan and Kentucky except a suspension foot bridge.
The bridge fell victim to wear and tear, too, with many boards missing. Still, youngsters crossed it daily to catch a school bus on the Kentucky side.
In 1975, the suspension bridge collapsed, leaving the community of about 50 families with no other option but to trespass on the railroad’s private gravel road. As far as public access, Vulcan was landlocked.
Appeals to the state for a new bridge went unanswered. Then, a 42-year-old bartender known as the “unofficial Mayor” of Vulcan went into action.
John Robinette wrote a letter to the USSR embassy in Washington as well as to communist officials in East Germany, explaining the town’s desperate need and requesting foreign aid.
“Robinette figured the Soviets might like to grab the opportunity to humiliate the Americans,” the article says.
“While the Kremlin officials never replied to Robinette’s plea, a New York-based Russian journalist, Iona Andronov, got wind of the story and travelled to Vulcan to interview the people and assess the situation.”
Meanwhile, news that a West Virginia hamlet was seeking foreign aid from the Soviets began drawing headlines all across the US.
“Embarrassed by the attention, the state immediately committed $1.3 million to build a bridge for the community. Coincidentally, the announcement came the same day Andronov decided to pay Vulcan a visit. The state’s official response was that the bridge had long been planned, and that such things require months to get done. But everybody knew it—the state ‘was embarrassed into it.'”
The appropriation for the one-lane bridge was approved during the John D. Rockefeller administration. Some sources say the state approval did not “coincidentally” occur when it did but came because the Rockefeller administration was so embarrassed by Andronov’s visit.
Such a fascinating piece of history, I had to pass it on.
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We all know the names of the major candidates for Governor. Others are lesser known.
Either Stephen Smith, Ron Stollings or Ben Salango will win the Democrat nomination.
Governor Jim Justice will be the Republican nominee but Woody Thrasher is a genuine contender.
Among the lower tier of candidates, I personally think highly of Brooke Lunsford, a teacher, pastor and entrepreneur. He has always impressed me and has been a good friend.
Trying to get past the inevitable question General Curtis Lemay asked himself when he became Governor George Wallace’s vice presidential choice, is difficult for Lunsford, though.
Appearing at a debate with his Democrat and Republican opponents, Lemay looked directly at the camera and asked, “why am I here?”
Only the also-ran candidates can conclusively answer that question but we can speculate, I suppose.
Lunsford ran for state Senate two years ago, losing decisively to Democrat incumbent Mike Woelfel. Losing a legislative seat doesn’t seem to be a springboard to a governor run, but here we are.
As an aside, I did urge Lunsford not to run for governor when we talked in December.
The first question to Lunsford would probably have to be, “do you have enough finances to just toss away a few thousand dollars?” But that is too simplistic for Lunsford. He is a complex man.
I, being an optimist, can somewhat identify with Lunsford. He sees the best result in every situation. That’s an endearing quality but not too realistic in this contest.
Like the Richie Ojedas of the world, Lunsford is bordering on becoming a perennial loser. That doesn’t help you in politics. If voters become convinced one can never win, he or she is doomed to defeat.
Reverse the old slogan, “the team that won’t lose, can’t lose” and make it “the team that can’t win, won’t win” works in politics.
One thing Lunsford will do is make things interesting. Reading his social media posts makes one wonder if this is a religious or gambling paradise campaign. Lunsford often makes it sound as if electing him will put Jesus in direct control of West Virginia’s government. That mixture of church and state bothers me deeply.
But one novelty for Lunsford is that he’s obsessed with running some sort of “raffle.” I am not completely clear how it would work but he points out it could legally be run by his 501(c)-3 non-profit.
I’m no expert on non-profits but it always has been common knowledge that a non-profit cannot keep its tax-exempt status if it gets involved in politics. I suppose Lunsford can explain how his raffle and politics can work together but, again, I am troubled by the plan.
So, we have the mixture of religion, politics and gambling. A weird combination.
Still, I like Lunsford and his zeal to move West Virginia forward. Although I still think the governor’s race is between those I mentioned, Lunsford can articulate his vision very well. He will happily discuss it with any voter. I’d urge those undecided in the governor’s race to call or text him on social media. You’ll be glad you did. Maybe he can explain to you how putting Jesus in the governor’s seat will set with Jews, Muslims, Atheists and Agnostics. And how running raffles all over the state appeals to anti-gambling bible thumpers.
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They continue to fall.
Southern West Virginia’s public servants have dwindled in the past three weeks. First, it was legendary Chapmanville Coach Ted Ellis, then Chapmanville Mayor Raamie Barker and now, Madison Mayor H.H. “Sonny” Howell.
Howell, also the long-serving Boone County Circuit Clerk, was one-of-a-kind and a straight shooter if there ever was one.
Jovial and a “people person,” you didn’t want to ask Sonny how he felt about something if you didn’t want a truthful answer. Howell didn’t mince words and that was one quality that made him a great public servant.
He always welcomed visitors to council meetings and urged them to “speak up. Tell us what you need.”
The Mayor joins the trio of gigantic southern West Virginia leaders who we’ll miss forever.
Condolences to his widow, family and scores of friends.
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Democrat State Senators Ron Stollings of Boone and John Unger of Berkeley are scheduled to lead a press conference tomorrow (Monday) concerning public health issues.
It’s another example of my belief that Stollings is the dark horse headed to possible victory in the May Democrat primary for Governor. Being a Medical Doctor puts Stollings above the pack in being qualified to handle the opioid crisis as well as coronavirus and other public health issues. Health matters are always on the voters’ minds and Stollings scores major points there.
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Jason Stephens, one of three Republicans in House District 19, wonders what my thoughts are on that race.
With the two incumbents — Kenneth Hicks and Robert Thompson — retiring, it is much too early to figure this one out.
Stephens surely stands a better chance than he did two years ago when he challenged Stollings. My guess is that he and E. Jay Marcum will come out of the GOP Primary as nominees. Democrats number six and that’s even tougher to predict.
Today, I’d give slight edges to Tyson Smith and David Thompson on the D side. But I surely reserve the right to change this one if necessary on May 1.
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A prostitution related trial for Republican State Senator Mike Mahoney is scheduled for April
The Marshall Countian has continued to serve as Chair of the House Health and Human Resources Committee despite the charges against him.
One wonders if Maroney might claim he was working with the young lady involved regarding her health and human resources. Then he could enter a “legislative immunity” plea like Mike Caputo and claim he is exempt from arrest and prosecution.
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Take heart, people. The legislative session is nearing an end and they haven’t completely ruined us yet.
Well, maybe …
Contact Ron Gregory at 304-533-5185 or email@example.com. Listen to his political commentary each Monday at 7 a.m. on the Tom Roten Morning Show on 800AM-WVHU, Huntington.