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Commissioner says removing county official is a lengthy process

May 21, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

After learning that removing a county official from office would be a lengthy process decided by a panel of three state Supreme Court-appointed judges, Berkeley County Commission member Howard Strauss said Thursday that he did not favor pursuing that avenue.

Although Commissioner John Wright was not mentioned by name during the discussion, Strauss afterward answered questions phrased using Wright's name.

Wright has attended only two of the commission's weekly meetings this year, Strauss said.

Last week Strauss asked the county's attorney, Norwood Bentley, to look into how a county official - whom he again did not name - could be removed from office for nonfeasance, or unwillingness or inability to perform the required job duties.

Bentley presented his findings during the commission's meeting Thursday. Wright did not attend and his nameplate was not placed in front of his empty chair.

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To remove a county official, either the County Commission or another county official would have to file a petition setting out the charges. Or, Bentley said, such charges could be set forth by either 50 voters or 1 percent of the number of people who voted in the county's last general election, whichever is lower.

Once the charges are outlined and attested to before a Circuit Court judge, they would be forwarded to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Bentley said.

The chief justice would then appoint three judges from around the state to hear the matter. If the judges find the county official did, in fact, neglect his duty and removed him from office, an appeal could be filed, Bentley said.

"Removal is a big deal. It's not something that's easily accomplished," he said.

Bentley said a challenge could be the fact that state code does not spell out exactly what is required of a commissioner. It says only that the commission must meet four times a year.

"It's a very difficult hurdle to overcome," Bentley said.

He said he doubted the process would be finished by the end of the year, when apparent Commissioner-elect Ron Collins will assume Wright's seat once Wright's six-year term is up.

Collins won the Republican primary for Wright's seat on May 11 and no Democratic candidate filed for the post. County officials said earlier this month the deadline has passed for Democrats to nominate a candidate to challenge Collins in the Nov. 2 general election.

Collins has agreed to fill in on two of the 10 boards on which Wright sat, Strauss said. If Wright does not resign Collins will step in as a county commissioner Jan. 1.

Strauss said he has not spoken to Wright for months and that Wright has not returned several phone calls.

"If my health becomes an issue ... I'd have a responsibility, an ethical responsibility, to resign," Strauss said during the meeting.

Wright had heart surgery last November.

"The problem didn't originate in November," Strauss said later. "The absentee problem goes on for years."

Residents are "ill-served" when only two commissioners are making decisions that affect the entire county, Strauss said.

"Our desire is to see a strong County Commission that will be serving the public," Strauss said. He added later, "We're on overload and we need help."

Although the county has not sent a formal letter to Wright asking for his resignation, Strauss said, the former chairman of the Berkeley County Republican Executive Committee has asked that Wright step down.

Jerry Mays said that, as a friend, he mailed a letter to Wright on May 13.

"The citizens of this growing county deserve, no need, the commitment of three full-time commissioners. I believe that the county's affairs will be in good hands with Ron. I believe, also, that your stepping down at this time will preserve the legacy that you have created for yourself and will show everyone what a true statesman you are," part of the letter reads.

Mays also wrote, "You have done wonderful things for this county and I would hate to see you tarnished by ill-conceived perceptions and nattering in the background. As you well know, perception is reality in politics."

Mays said he has not seen or spoken to Wright in some time, and has not received a response to his letter.

"I think it is the responsible thing to do," Mays said of Wright stepping down.

Commissioners are paid $30,800 a year.

A message left on Wright's home answering machine Thursday afternoon was not returned. A secretary at the County Commission office said that Wright does not come in the office and that she mails him a packet of information about once a week.

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