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Commissioner missing meetings, drawing paycheck

October 10, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Berkeley County Commissioner John Wright has received $23,692.40 in gross pay so far this year, despite attending only one full meeting in March and about an hour of the commission's first meeting in January.

Renee Hudson, the county's payroll clerk, said the salary amount is what Wright has received from Jan. 1 to Oct. 1 - the most recent pay period.

Commissioners are paid $30,800 per year.

Neither of the county's other two commissioners would comment directly about Wright's salary, with one saying he is trying to stay focused on the positive.

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"It was out of our hands," County Commissioner Howard Strauss said. "I prefer to put my energy into what we can get accomplished."

"I look at it as, there is light at the end of the tunnel," Strauss said of Ron Collins' imminent joining of the commission. "Come Jan. 1, we're looking forward to going up to a three-person commission again."

Wright did not seek re-election and Collins, a fellow Republican, is running unopposed in the November general election.

Wright has not returned phone calls left at his home over the past 10 months, including one left last week. A message on his home answering machine says that anyone calling for a county-related reason should call the County Commissioners' office and leave a message with the secretary.

The secretary in the county commission office said Friday that Wright has not checked his messages in months.

Left in the dark


Both Strauss and County Commission President Steve Teufel said they have not spoken to Wright in some time.

Teufel said he does not know the health status of Wright, who had heart surgery last November.

"I wish him a speedy recovery, but I think I did that in January, February, March and it's now October, November and December," Teufel said after the commissioners' regular weekly meeting last Thursday morning.

At that meeting, Wright's chair was filled by Collins - who cannot vote on issues, but occasionally voices his opinion on certain matters. Wright's nameplate was turned facedown.

Teufel said he especially wishes Wright would have let the commissioners know what his plans were regarding the many boards and commissions on which he sat.

"I'm disappointed there wasn't a better communication level," Teufel said.

Teufel, Strauss and Collins have filled in for Wright.

Taking over Wright's position on the county's fire board has caused Teufel's workload to increase even more, preventing him from spending more time with his family, he said.

"Who suffered the most? Probably my wife and daughter," he said.

Strauss also said he has filled in as needed.

"Some evenings I could be at three meetings at one time. We cannot be cloned," he said.

Resignation request


So far this year, the county commission has met more than 40 times. According to minutes of the meetings archived on the commission's Web site, Wright attended the entire March 11 meeting. On the first meeting of the year, held Jan. 8, Wright was in attendance, but indicated he planned to leave within an hour. He left in the middle of a discussion a short time after the meeting was called to order, according to the minutes.

He has not attended any other meetings and missed the entire budget preparation process and the formation of several ordinances, including one dealing with the acceptable location of adult-oriented businesses and another dealing with ATVs.

Jerry Mays, former chair of the Berkeley County Republican Executive Committee, sent Wright a letter in May requesting he resign and turn his seat over to Collins.

Mays wrote in part, "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."

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 did not receive a response to the letter.

About five months ago, the commissioners looked into removing Wright from office, but declined to pursue that avenue after finding out it likely would be a lengthy process decided by a panel of three state Supreme Court-appointed judges.

Strauss said at that time that he wanted to examine how to remove a county official for nonfeasance, or unwillingness or inability to perform the required job duties.

"If my health becomes an issue ... I'd have a responsibility, an ethical responsibility, to resign," Strauss said during the commission's May 20 meeting.

At that time, Strauss also said that Wright's surgery in November 2003 could not be labeled as the starting point of Wright's absences.

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

Wright missed nine of the commission's 53 meetings in 2003 and six of 53 meetings in 2002, online archived minutes show.

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