CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Secretary of State’s Office says it can’t weigh in on the state Republican Party chairwoman’s removal of an elected county chairman, and now the question seems headed to court.
“You may not like me. You may not enjoy me. I’m very polarizing,” said Rob Cornelius, who has been the chairman of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee. “But the thing is, you can’t annul me because I hurt your feelings.”
State Republican Party Chairwoman Melody Potter sent a letter to the Wood County Executive Committee last week, removing Cornelius.
She wrote that he had failed to perform basic duties of the role and cited two sections of party bylaws. She used much of the letter to describe public insults directed at her by Cornelius.
“Mr. Cornelius has called me a ‘disappointing liar’ and has referred to me on Twitter and in public appearances as a ‘prostitute multiple times,” Potter wrote.
She followed up with a letter installing businessman Roger Conley, who recently hosted a town hall for Gov. Jim Justice, as the acting chairman of the Wood County Executive Committee.
The Secretary of State’s Office, which has to update county executive committee rosters in instances of vacancies, responded earlier this week by asking Potter what authority she was acting under. Normally, the office wrote, roster updates would be submitted by a county chairman.
Potter then sent another letter citing the same bylaws as before but also noting that the Secretary of State’s office had recently accepted her submission of some other county rosters.
On Wednesday, the Secretary of State’s Office sent another letter, agreeing to publish the changes that Potter had submitted.
The Secretary of State’s role is limited, general counsel Deak Kersey said Thursday on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
“The key here is it’s not the Secretary of State’s Office’s authority. It’s not our purview,” he said. “All we do in short is list the rosters on the website.”
He cited a section of West Virginia code dealing with vacancies in county executive committees. That code — Chapter 3, Article 1, Section 9, part g — deals with who informs the Secretary of State’s Office of a roster change in the event of a vacancy.
The Secretary of State’s questions and that section of code did not address the circumstances for creating the vacancy in the first place.
Responding to a followup question by MetroNews, Kersey said the Secretary of State’s Office has authority to certify election results.
“However, following certification, there is no statutory Secretary of State function relating to enforcement of the election results,” he stated.
County executive committee members are chosen by voters during primary elections. Once formed, the executive committees then vote among themselves to determine a chairman.
The Wood County Commission addressed this issue during its Thursday morning meeting. Cornelius was present.
“You can like him or not like him. But what it boils down to is we had an election,” said Wood County Commission Present Blair Couch, speaking in a telephone interview.
Couch suggested the legal removal of Cornelius could happen legally in one of two ways.
Two thirds of the members of the county executive committee could vote to remove him as chairman — but probably not from the committee because he was elected to serve on it.
“She can come up and lobby the members of his county gop committee and at the next meeting they could vote two thirds to remove him as chairman,” Couch said. “I don’t believe they could remove him all the way off the committee because he’s an elected person.
The other way is through a three-judge panel laid out in a separate section of state code.
The removal of elected officers is described in Chapter 6, Article 6, Section 7. This was the process used last year to remove Bob Henry Baber as the mayor of Richwood, for example.
“In my tenure, we’ve seen a mayor take that. I’ve seen fellow county commissioners brought up on those. But you empanel a three-judge panel, there’s discovery and it’s spelled out,” Couch said.
Couch said a memo won’t suffice.
“What gave us pause as a governmental agency is that ‘I can remove someone elected by a letter,'” he said.
Potter cited two related sections of the state Republican Party bylaws.
One gives the State Executive Committee and the chairwoman jurisdiction to intervene in local matters of sufficient importance. Potter was the only one who signed the letter, though, and broader involvement of the rest of the executive committee isn’t clear.
The second describes a power of the chairman to use personal discretion to resolve issues on a temporary basis where “time is of the essence.”
Cornelius, appearing on “Talkline,” contended that sets a troubling precedent.
“Now by fiat Melody Potter can annul any election of any party officer anywhere in the state by signature,” he said. “That’s dangerous.”