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Developers should pay for baseless suit

September 09, 2007|By LYN WIDMYER

A man goes to his doctor for an annual physical. Afterward, the doctor says, "I have some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first?"

"Give me the bad news," the distraught man replies.

"You have only three months to live," the doctor reports.

"What is the good news?" asks the man hopefully.

The doctor replies, "You have just been appointed to the county planning commission so it will seem like three years."

Jefferson County (W.Va.) Planning Commissioner Todd Baldau would appreciate that joke.

Baldau has only been on the planning commission for two years, but it must seem like 20. That's because a group of developers filed a civil action to remove him from the planning commission in November 2006.

Herb Jonkers, Gene Capriotti and Lou Athey accused Baldau of "multiple acts of official misconduct, malfeasance in office, incompetence and neglect of duty."

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Put more simply, Baldau had the audacity to vote against their subdivision application because of concerns about traffic impacts

Baldau has been defending his actions in court ever since. A special three-judge court ruled on the case last month. The judges have found "There is not a scintilla of evidence in this case to support any of the allegations."

Just to make sure the plaintiffs got the point, the judges went out of their way to compliment Baldau as "an informed, smart and conscientious, unpaid citizen member of the Jefferson County Planning Commission."

I am sure Todd Baldau is breathing a sign of relief. Not only has he been completely vindicated of any wrongdoing, but now the County Commission can pay his legal bills.

For some bizarre reason, members of appointed boards and commissions in West Virginia must pay their own legal expenses if sued. Reimbursement is only possible after the case is concluded.

This fact almost made Baldau quit the planning commission when Jonkers, Capriotti and Athey petitioned for his removal. As Baldau wrote in The Herald-Mail on Aug. 27, 2006, "At my family's expense, I must hire and somehow pay for a lawyer for a legal process that could take a year or more to conclude and cost who knows how much in legal expenses and fees."

Now the County Commission can repay Baldau for legal fees and court expenses totaling just over $50,000.

Of course, when I say County Commission I really mean the taxpayers of Jefferson County. I don't mind. The Baldau case is a welcome affirmation that citizens who serve on governmental boards and commissions are entitled to express reasoned opinions and should not fear legal retaliation.

Many people donated money to Todd Baldau to help defray legal costs. Baldau says he intends to return all donations once the County Commission approves payment of his legal fees.

It would be nice if Jonkers, Capriotti and Athey would follow Baldau's lead. The court unanimously agreed the plaintiffs "significantly and clearly failed to prove that (Baldau) should, for any reason, be removed as a member of the Jefferson County Planning Commission."

I think it only fair the developers should repay the $50,000 it took to defend a public servant against their unsubstantiated allegations.

Lyn Widmyer is a Charles Town, W.Va., resident who writes for The Herald-Mail. Her e-mail address is rwidmyer@msn.com.

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