Nicholas Co. Commission gets lesson in ethics/open meetings law

Public business must be carried out in the open.  That’s self-evident, but it still does not always happen.

The latest example of the failure of a local government in West Virginia to be open about the public’s business comes from the Nicholas County Commission.

Last August, the Commission hired Roger Beverage as the county administrator at a salary of $60,000 a year.   A local citizen, Tim Clifford, challenged the hiring, claiming the Commission acted illegally.

Clifford, who represented himself in the legal fight, took the Commission to court, and the court took the Commission to task. The state Supreme Court appointed Webster County Circuit Court Judge Jack Alsop to hear the case, and Alsop unloaded on the commissioners.

Alsop found, among other things:

–The Nicholas County Commission violated the state’s Open Government Proceedings Act.  Beverage’s job description and guidelines about his responsibilities distributed to county employees “were neither discussed nor approved during an open county commission meeting.”

–Beverage violated the state Ethics Act when he was allowed to create his own job description and formulate his salary.  Additionally, the job description was not created until “a significant time after the hire” and he drafted that description to parallel his own qualifications.

–Judge Alsop said, “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 has unquestionable economic interest, is blatantly improper.”

–The County Commission sought to modify their form of county government without following procedures established by state law.

Judge Alsop ordered the hiring of Beverage be rescinded and the position of County Administrator be eliminated.  Additionally, the Judge ordered the county to pay the costs Tim Clifford incurred bringing the action.

County Commissioners are part-time public officials, so it’s understandable that they may not be intimately familiar with every chapter and verse of the state’s open meeting and ethics rules.

But what happened in Nicholas County was a series of gross violations of the kind that undermine the public’s confidence in their local government.  There’s an appropriate place to conduct the public’s business, and that’s in public.

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