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Former Berkeley Co. planner files suit against county, planners

March 30, 2005|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Former Berkeley County Planning Director Sue Ann Morgan filed a lawsuit against Berkeley County Tuesday, contending that the Planning Commission had neither the authority nor a reason to dismiss her from her job in January, and that the Planning Commission violated the Open Governmental Proceedings Act.

The six-page lawsuit, filed by Martinsburg attorneys David M. Hammer and Robert J. Schiavoni, names the Berkeley County Planning Commission, the Berkeley County Commission and County Commissioner Steve Teufel.

It demands that Morgan be reinstated to her position and that members of the Planning Commission and Teufel be found guilty of violating the Open Governmental Proceedings Act and be fined $500 each.

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The suit was filed as a writ of mandamus, meaning Morgan's attorneys want a Circuit Court judge to take action, rather than a jury trial.

Morgan, who started working for the county in April 2003, was dismissed after Planning Commission members met in an executive session during their Jan. 10 meeting. Her annual salary at the time was $53,000.

Morgan said she was given no warning that Planning Commission members planned to discuss personnel matters and had no clue that her job was in jeopardy, according to the suit.

Ray Brosius, chairman of the Planning Commission, did not return phone calls in January after Morgan was dismissed from her job. He said Tuesday evening he was not aware that the suit had been filed. "It's news to me, that's all I'm saying," he said.

Teufel did not return a message left at his home Tuesday.

According to the lawsuit, the Open Governmental Proceedings Act was violated because the agenda for the Jan. 10 meeting did not indicate that Morgan's employment was to be discussed.

Also, the vote to terminate Morgan was taken during the meeting, not afterward in an open session as is required, the suit states.

"Ms. Morgan was not given the option to attend the executive session wherein her continued employment and/or termination was discussed nor was she given the option to request that such discussion be done in public as was her right under West Virginia law," the suit states.

"Indeed, Planning Commission President Ray Brosius told Ms. Morgan that she was not to be present during the executive session but that she should not leave for the evening because her presence would be required after the Planning Commission came out of executive session," the suit states.

The suit also indicates that Teufel, because he was not the County Commission's representative to the Planning Commission at the time, should not have been allowed to attend the executive session and vote.

A week earlier, Morgan received a letter indicating that new County Commissioner Ron Collins had replaced Teufel as the County Commission's representative, the suit states.

The Planning Commission had no authority to dismiss Morgan, the suit also states. On June 13, 2004, the state Legislature passed an act that prevents a planning commission from being able to fire employees, according to the suit.

The Berkeley County Commission was not consulted about Morgan's dismissal, nor did it ever vote to dismiss her, the suit states.

Morgan said Tuesday she never was told why she was dismissed.

"Clearly they had no legal justification or they would have been forthcoming with that information," she said, adding later, "They have not offered any reason to anybody."

Morgan said she is now doing consulting work for some developers in the county.

She said she decided to pursue legal action because she feels her job performance was never lacking.

"I did my job to the best of my ability. I didn't do anything wrong and I don't think it was right that the Planning Commission elected to terminate me," she said.

During her tenure in the county, Morgan started a development review process to ensure that once a developer brought in a project, he would receive review comments in 30 days.

Before that system was created, paperwork for projects would be added to a pile, where it could sit for months, she has said.

Morgan also oversaw a revamping of the fees charged for various Planning Department duties, and was able to add two new positions to the staff, needed to handle continued growth.

In 2001 and 2002, the Planning Department processed around 3,000 lot approvals each year, Morgan has said.

By 2003, that figure had increased to 10,000.

Morgan said the figure for 2004 might top 20,000 approved lots. She was working on an annual report when she was dismissed from her job.

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