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West Virginia Democrats absent as panel receives legislative report

April 13, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley County's three Republican county commissioners on Thursday received a somewhat partisan report on the 2007 regular session of the 78th West Virginia Legislature from the county's GOP-dominated delegation of lawmakers.

With Democratic state senators John Unger and Bob Tabb absent from the meeting, Del. John Overington told the commission that his legislation that allows the Martinsburg City Council to appoint county residents to the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library board passed only because Unger was too busy trying to kill another bill that would have allowed Berkeley County residents to vote on whether to increase the size of the county commission to five members.

In a telephone interview after the meeting, Unger said he wasn't notified of the meeting with county leaders, and fired back at Overington, insisting he was "not in the business of killing bills."

"I want to congratulate Del. Overington," Unger said. "I'm just very proud that after 22 years in the Legislature, he was able to get one bill (in which he was he was lead sponsor) through the Legislature."

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"That is monumental. It really is," said Unger, claiming other passed bills only bear his name as supporting sponsor. "I would have not been that coldhearted to try to stop it."

Tabb, who also did not attend the meeting, said in a telephone interview after the meeting that he was invited to take part in the discussion, but he had to tend to a delivery at his nursery business in Jefferson County.

Earlier in the commission meeting, legal counsel Norwood Bentley III grumbled about a letter from state Sen. Edwin J. Bowman that suggested that county commissioners didn't know what they were doing when they asked to have the commission bill introduced.

The bill died in the Senate Government Organization Committee that Bowman chairs on the next-to-last day of the session.

"Actually, I would suggest there were other people that didn't know what they were doing," Bentley said without naming anyone individually.

In response to Bowman's letter, Bentley drafted a new resolution for the commission to bring about a second attempt at having the commission bill passed by lawmakers.

"I told Commissioner Bill Stubblefield if they made 'proper' application, I would get it on a special session call," Unger said Thursday.

Overington conceded in discussions with the commission that his bill, House Bill 2048, would not require the city council to appoint county residents.

Commissioners seemed more concerned that they have no oversight of the public library system's board's fiscal actions, and still must allocate increasingly more money each year .

Aside from the downtown location in Martinsburg, the library board oversees operations in Marlowe-Falling Waters, Hedgesville and Inwood, W.Va.

County Administrator Deborah Hammond said a local bill adopted in the 1970s forces the Berkeley County Commission, Berkeley County Board of Education and the City of Martinsburg to each contribute a formula-based amount of money for the library.

For the 2007-08 fiscal year, the county allocated about $688,000, Hammond said.

Collins said he would like legislators to have a bill introduced that would allow a cap placed on annual allocations, then force the library board to petition county leaders for additional money.

"That is eating more and more into our budget each year," Collins said.

The commission was told that the school board, which also has no power to appoint library board members, possibly could establish a cap on their contribution thanks to Senate Bill 541, which was championed at Thursday's meeting by Stubblefield as possibly the "crown jewel" of the legislative session.

Among accomplishments touted by lawmakers were the elimination of the privilege tax, passage of transferable development rights for counties with zoning ordinances, business tax reductions, retirement and death benefits for emergency responders and increases in pay for West Virginia State Police.

"It was a very successful legislative session," said Del. Walter Duke, who like delegates Jonathan Miller and Craig Blair, largely avoided making partisan statements.

"It was a much better atmosphere in which to work," Duke said of the new, albeit still Democratic leadership that controls the House.

Though Blair noted his disappointment with the commission bill, he said it was a pleasure to serve in the House, and commended Democratic leaders there for their cooperation.

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