Residents look to remove Nicholas administrator - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Residents look to remove Nicholas administrator

Posted: Updated:

Nicholas County residents who've fought to overturn the hiring of a county administrator because it wasn't done according to state law are now circulating petitions for the removal of their three county commissioners.

Organizer Tom Clifford said they've already got "several hundred signatures" on a petition calling for the removal of county commissioners Kenneth Altizer, John Miller and Dr. Yancy Short, who filed notice of their intent to appeal a Circuit Court decision.

He said the citizens' group only needs 50 signatures, "but we're trying to get 1,000" to underscore what he says is a backlash of public opinion over the commissioners' efforts to bring Roger Beverage on board as administrator without taking it to voters.

In addition to the removal petition, Clifford said the group also is working on an ethics complaint and has asked the West Virginia State Police for an out-of-county investigation.

"We've got to do this," Clifford said this week. "Nothing will change if we don't; our elected officials will just go on doing what they want."

Clifford said residents he talks to are "outraged" that commissioners would hire an administrator, allow that administrator to write his own job description and set his own salary without public input and in defiance of state code.

"We've got miners laid off and they're hiring a fellow to be county administrator for $60,000 a year?" Clifford said. "That's a lot of money here, and it's something the county commissioners swore they could do anyway when they campaigned. It just doesn't make sense."

Commissioners had announced the hiring of Roger Beverage, executive director of the Day Report Center, at their Aug. 6 meeting. When asked why there had been no public hearing, commissioners said they'd been advised by the West Virginia Ethics Commission that they weren't required to take public comments on the hiring.

Beverage's hiring was rescinded the following week, however, because commissioners neglected to put it on the agenda for the Aug. 6 meeting. Commissioners then added it to the Aug. 20 agenda to allow for public comment. Fewer than 10 days later commissioners circulated a memorandum to courthouse personnel that they'd given Beverage control of all departments, that he should be afforded access to all records and correspondence and stipulating that he was authorized to take any actions within those departments he deemed appropriate.

Clifford then filed suit, claiming Beverage's hiring — as well as the powers he was given — violated state code.

Visiting Judge Jack Alsop, assigned to hear the case, ruled in Clifford's favor, pointing out nothing in the meeting minutes supported the commissioners' contention that they had discussed and approved the job description before hiring Beverage, or that they'd talked about the memorandum prior to it being sent out or that they had actually consulted the state Ethics Commission.

Alsop also ruled that Beverage's hiring and the duties delegated to him were in violation of the West Virginia Constitution and said allowing him to draft his job description and set his own salary was "improper."

"The court is of the opinion that the Commission's failure to adopt a job description prior to hiring a County Administrator, in addition to allowing Mr. Beverage to create the job description and salary for a job in which he has an unquestionable economic interest is blatantly improper," Alsop wrote.

"Furthermore, when coupled with the language of the job description which conveniently reflects Mr. Beverage's own personal background, experience and qualifications, the Court is of the option that such behavior is precisely the kind of conduct the West Virginia Ethics Act was designed to prevent."

Alsop also took issue with the powers the commission had given Beverage, saying that he was, in effect, "granted authority that was without limitation or oversight by the commission and thus the commission effectively conferred upon (him) more authority that that which is constitutionally and statutorily prescribed upon the commission itself."

He said when taken as a whole, the commission's actions "constitute an attempt by the County Commission to unilaterally modify the form of county government."

Commissioners, represented by Charleston-based Duane Ruggier of Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe, have filed notice of their intent to appeal. The next step is to petition for appeal to the state Supreme Court; if the high court grants the petition, they would then file an official appeal. Ruggier did not provide a comment for this story.

Clifford, though, insists commissioners failed to follow the procedure spelled out in the state code: Before they can hire an administrator, Clifford said the way he reads the law, commissioners were required to first appeal to the Legislature for permission to change county government, then follow the steps spelled out in state code. And before anything can be finalized, he said voters must have a chance to cast their ballot for or against the change.

"We don't dispute they can hire him, but only after they go through the steps in how to change or reform county government," he said.

Clifford also said the county has not reimbursed the citizens' group for court costs and filing fees.