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Berkeley County will have fewer closed meetings

January 27, 2001

Berkeley County will have fewer closed meetings



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer


MARTINSBURG, W. Va. - New Berkeley County Commission President Howard Strauss has pledged that much more of the county's business will be conducted in the open in 2001.

He said the commissioners in the past spent too much time behind closed doors in executive session.

Because records are not kept of such sessions, it is difficult to say how many topics were covered in closed sessions in 2000. But the minutes reflect there were about 42 instances in which the public was asked to leave while the commissioners discussed issues related to real estate, or more often, personnel. The commission holds a regular meeting once a week.

"It just seems like they were done on a regular basis, far too frequently," said Strauss, who was elected in November and pledged to open up the meetings.

Commissioner John Wright, who has voiced his opposition to going behind closed doors, agreed.

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"I do no like executive sessions," he said in an interview. "Yet there are many of these executive session have been little more than what could have been said in public. You should keep them far apart, if you possibly can. There are plenty of executive sessions that could have been open."

The minutes show Commissioner Robert Burkhart made the motion to go into executive session about 80 percent of the time that sessions were closed. Wright said Burkhart wanted many of the closed sessions because "he is very protective of the county. He's trying to protect the good name of the county. He doesn't want any of our people being talked about - nothing damaging."

Burkhart said nothing improper goes on behind closed doors. He noted that most such sessions are held to discuss personnel matters and individuals don't want to discuss personnel problems in public.

"Just because I ask for them, doesn't mean I want them," he said. "People ask me for them."

"People think they're getting Cadillac treatment when they get behind closed doors," Wright said. "They're not. They're getting routine treatment."

State law reads: "the people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so they can retain control over the instruments of government created by them."

But the law includes exceptions to the rule that government meetings must remain open. The two most commonly used exceptions are real estate and personnel matters.

Personnel matters must relate to a specific public official and a specific action, the law states.

"General personnel policies may not be discussed" in private, according to the law.

The purchase, sale or lease of property may be discussed privately when a public discussion might affect the price government would have to pay.

Wright said a closed-door topic that made him uncomfortable last year was a land swap on Route 11 near the Spring Mills exit of I-81. That became controversial once it became public.

And a business once said it would not consider moving to the county if the commissioners discussed its plans publicly, a statement Wright termed "intimidation."

Commission attorney Norwood Bentley III said the commissioners are careful about what they discuss.

"Sometimes, something skips through," he said. "But it is not being abused."

"You have to watch in executive sessions that horses don't get switched," Wright said. "You're talking about one thing and then you switch to another subject."

"It's a real fine line," said Strauss, who attended many commission meetings before he was elected.

He said the action might have been taken sooner on problems with bad air in the county administrative building at 126 W. King St. had the matter been discussed publicly from the beginning.

The issue was discussed behind closed doors, he said. Minutes also show it was discussed openly.

"I think if it had been discussed in open session, pressure would have been on to do something," he said.

Only one closed-door meeting has been held this year, to discuss legal issues related to a sheriff's deputy who was fired and to three deputies who were indicted for beating a Hedgesville man. The fired deputy will get his job back.

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