CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Late last year, Gov. Jim Justice signed a letter giving the state Adjutant General oversight of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Emergency Management is within the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, rather than under the National Guard, but Justice’s letter said a unified effort is necessary to respond to emergencies.
“I will work with my staff to introduce legislation that will make permanent these actions and will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management,” Justice stated in the letter.
Since then, a lot has happened.
State-level emergency managers moved from the basement of the Capitol up to the National Guard headquarters in Charleston. Staff at Emergency Management began to be hired under military authority, which allowed for higher salaries and fewer steps in the hiring process.
But legislation went nowhere.
A bill reflecting the governor’s move died in the regular session. Then another proposed bill was never brought up in special session.
Now, county emergency managers are reaching out to the delegates and senators from their districts, making sure they’re aware that the situation still exists even though legislation never went through.
“Apparently it’s still operating under the memo is my guess because there has been no law passed. I guess our question would be, would that suffice?” asked Dean Meadows, Wyoming County Emergency Services director.
Meadows is also the president of the emergency management council and president of the 911 council, whose members opposed the legislation to shuffle the state agencies.
Now the local emergency managers wonder how long the memo can remain in effect.
“The concern, with the legislators as well as with us, is the memo was not an executive order,” Meadows said.
State code places the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management within the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. It says the director will coordinate emergency management in consultation with the Military Affairs and Public Safety secretary.
Brian Abraham, general counsel for the Governor’s Office, acknowledged attempts to change state law, but he said doing so is unnecessary.
“There’s no legal requirement,” Abraham said. “Guess what: The secretary for Military Affairs works for the governor, the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management works for the governor and the Adjutant General works for the governor. So any way shape or form he wants to tell them to work together is the prerogative of the chief executive.”
Of concerns, Abraham said, “It’s completely misplaced. I doubt anyone gave them a legal rationale.
“There’s been no change, there’s no pending legislation right now. The governor is the chief executive and he has the absolute ability to tell his agencies how they’ll operate.”
Abraham, speaking in a telephone interview, said the structure was meant to provide a unified response to the catastrophic flood of 2016.
Governor Justice, about this time last year, placed Adjutant Gen. James Hoyer as the point man for all of West Virginia’s flood relief efforts.
“Having everybody communicating directly with him without filter minimizes the potential for confusion and miscommunication,” Abraham said. “So that will remain in place until the recovery concludes.”
The initial letter from Justice doesn’t specify a response to the 2016 flood or set a timetable.
Abraham said the current system has helped the agency quickly build up expertise.
“The reason for the use of the military authority and the hiring of employees is, given the urgent nature of the recovery operations, our department of homeland security is subject to the department of personnel rules and sometimes can take months to bring employees on,” he said.
“The military authority is not subject to those same rules, so we’re able to hire people at a much more rapid pace, which allows us to fill needed positions.”
That also provides flexibility, he said.
“It has the added benefit of not creating a legacy employee,” Abraham said. “If we need to staff up we can do that and once that need is no longer there those employees will dissolve out of the system.”
He suggested that some county-level emergency managers remain loyal to former Emergency Management Director Jimmy Gianato. He contends some just don’t understand.
“So every overture we’ve made at trying to help on the flood recovery side has met this adverse reaction to the county EOC people but for misguided reasons,” Abraham said.
In summary, he said, “This is a non-story.”
Jerry Beckett, the emergency planner for the Office of Emergency Services in Cabell County, disagrees.
Beckett contends the letter goes against state code.
“The National Guard is a support agency,” he said. “It’s not a lead agency.”
Beckett is aware of longstanding concerns that gianato was not careful with equipment or financial resources. But he said that should have been resolved by a leadership change, rather than a full-on bureaucratic shakeup.
“The system was not broken. The leadership of WV Homeland Security and Emergency Management was absolutely broken and ineffective,” Beckett said.
“So apparently someone in their wisdom decided the director was inefficient ‘so let’s turn the organization upside down and reorganize it.'”
He contends most lawmakers were not aware the restructuring had continued.
“We’re finding out that most of our legislators, if not all, were not aware of this letter. They were of the understanding that since SB 326 did not pass that everything was back to normal,” Beckett said. “We’re asking them to convince the governor that it needs to go back the way it was.”
Delegate Buck Jennings, R-Preston, is concerned.
“I don’t know how legal it is for the governor to tell the adjutant general just to take over,” Jennings said. “I’m afraid there’s going to be a conflict. The Army should never be in charge of civilian mitigation and that kind of stuff. That all should be done by civilians, and it should be separated.”
Jennings spoke against the bill when it was considered during the regular session.
He remains opposed.
“I need to look more closely into what’s going on and how to get this reversed,” he said.
Senator Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, wants to examine whether the current structure is truly effective.
“I think the thing we need to do is put all the parties in the room and say, ‘Is it working?'” If it’s working then we need to give it some consideration,” Boso said. “I’m not sure that it is working, personally.”
If the governor shuffled the agency to improve the recovery from the 2016 flood, frustration has grown, said Boso, who represents one of the areas hit hardest by that disaster.
“They’ve moved a lot of stuff around,” Boso said. “Is it taking care of the people? If the answer to that is no then we need to be re-looking at that structure. Or is the structure correct and we need to change the people? And that’s an executive function.”