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911 group goes before grand jury with complaint

February 20, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A citizens' group upset with Berkeley County's road name changes and other aspects of a new 911 system went before a grand jury with complaints about the County Commission last week, but no action was taken.

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Specifics about the latest tactic taken by Berkeley County Citizens for Common Sense 911 have been shrouded in the secrecy afforded grand jury proceedings, and the principals are saying little.

Willard Wynne, Common Sense 911's treasurer, confirmed that members of his group appeared before the grand jury last week in connection with their dissatisfaction with the 911 project. He declined to comment further, but said, "We are not by any means stopping here."

Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely acknowledged that there was a "private citizen complaint" and that the grand jury declined to take any action on the criminal allegation.

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Berkeley County Commissioner Robert L. Burkhart said that he was asked to appear before the grand jury and did so, but wouldn't discuss his testimony.

When a grand jury convenes, the criminal allegations it considers are almost always presented by prosecutors, but there are exceptions. Games-Neely said that citizen complaints have become "more common in recent years."

A grand jury is convened in Berkeley County four times a year to decide whether there is enough evidence in criminal cases for them to proceed. By law, the identities of the 16 members of the grand jury and their deliberations are kept secret.

Over a three-day period last week, the grand jury returned indictments in about 75 cases and declined to indict in two cases, Games-Neely said.

"We're not immune from prosecution, either as a body or as individuals," said Commissioner John E. Wright. He said that in the 20 years he has served, the commission has been sued about 12 to 15 times.

In a suit over the implementation of ambulance fees about 10 years ago, a panel of three circuit judges quickly dismissed the suit, before the commissioners even testified, Wright said.

Common Sense 911 formed in early 1999, nearly four years after Berkeley County began working to change the names of about 500 roads that may have been confused with other roads or that had no names.

The project, which also entails new house numbers, has been delayed and is still not finished. Burkhart said Sunday that 911 director Mary Kackley is working with the United States Post Offices on the necessary changes.

"I hope to have it place by the first of July," said Burkhart. He noted that another target date for completion - last April 1 - has long since passed.

Burkhart said the post office branches on the outer portions of the county appear to be prepared, but others are not.

Common Sense has found fault with how the project has been carried out. Hoping to halt the work, the group filed a civil suit against the county last March, but Berkeley County Circuit Judge David Sanders dismissed the suit in July.

Instead of appealing Sanders' ruling, Common Sense 911 filed Freedom of Information Act requests.

Group members were not happy with the response they got from the county, alleging that "custodians of the records sought to engage in illegal tactics," which the county has denied.

Common Sense filed a criminal complaint against the county. The city of Martinsburg police passed the matter along to Games-Neely for investigation. No charges were filed.

A violation of the state's Freedom of Information Act is a misdemeanor and carries a maximum penalty of 10 days in jail and a $500 fine.

The county was also sued last year by Hedgesville homeowners Paul D. and Carolyn S. Oliver, who complained when their road name was changed from Boy Scout Road to Big F Park Road. That civil suit was dismissed as well.

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