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County Commission size debate to continue at hearing

October 21, 2005|by CANDICE BOSELY

MARTINSBURG, W.VA.

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Judy Malone said she could argue that the Berkeley County Commission needs five members, but she also could argue that it is fine with its current membership of three.

Still, she has spearheaded an effort to allow voters to decide whether the number of commissioners should be increased - a possibility that has been discussed for years.

Malone said she knew a petition to increase the number of commissioners from three to five was circulating two years ago, but she found out while reading archived minutes of past County Commission meetings that petitions had been circulating even earlier.

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"I didn't know there was a petition two years prior to two years ago," she said during Thursday's County Commission meeting. "The voters still haven't had the opportunity to vote on the issue."

A public hearing on the issue has been scheduled for Dec. 8.

In February 2003, a proposed petition was presented to the county's attorney, Norwood Bentley, who said it seemed acceptable.

After that, minutes of the commission's weekly meetings make no mention of the petition, Malone said.

"It seems like the issue was just dropped," she said.

Since Malone took up the issue earlier this year, she said she has received support from both Democrats and Republicans, and said she is confident 10 percent of the county's registered voters would sign a petition in favor of increasing the number of commissioners.

As of Oct. 11, there were 56,017 registered voters in the county, according to the voter registration office.

Commissioner Ron Collins curtly asked Malone why she believes the number of commissioners needs to be increased.

When Malone said she has never said the number needs to be increased, Collins asked her why she was at the meeting and speaking about the issue.

She responded that she believes it is time for voters to decide, given that the idea has been discussed for some time.

Collins said that in West Virginia only Jefferson County has five commissioners, which he said was a policy instituted when the county was still a part of Virginia.

If increasing the number of commissioners "is the greatest thing since Cheerios" why aren't more counties doing it? he asked.

"I guess I'm just a little put off by someone coming up and saying we need to do this and nobody's ever sat down with us and said, 'Do you need to do this?'" he said.

He said he believes the commission accomplishes what needs to be accomplished with three members, but said he will stand behind whatever the public feels is appropriate.

Commissioner Howard Strauss made the motion to hold the public hearing in December, saying he believes voters should have the final say.

"Ultimately, it should be the public's decision, not the County Commission's," he said.

Still at debate is the exact process needed to put the question on a ballot.

Malone said her interpretation of the state Constitution indicates that a petition with signatures of 10 percent of the county's registered voters is not needed to forward the matter to the state Legislature.

She said she believes the County Commission itself can simply forward a request to the Legislature asking that the number of commissioners be increased.

Either way - with or without a petition - the Legislature must pass a bill approving the request before the question can be put to voters during an election.

Commissioners are elected to serve six-year terms and are paid $30,800 a year.

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