CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Two employees of the West Virginia Development Office who were deeply involved with the Rise West Virginia program for long-term flood relief resigned Friday.
That was a stunner for members of the Legislature’s Committee on Flooding, where Mary Jo Thompson and Russell Tarry were to testify this morning.
They remained on the agenda this morning, and lawmakers had thought they would appear.
Tarry was the director of the West Virginia Office of Economic Opportunity. Thompson was director of community development in the Department of Commerce.
Their departures mean the program to manage long-term flood relief under the Department of Commerce is now without two workers who were deeply involved — along with the top three leaders in Commerce, two of whom were forced out.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, administrator of $149 million available for West Virginia flood relief, has a specific agreement with the state Department of Commerce to oversee those funds.
After weeks of questions about how West Virginia is handling long-term flood relief, Thompson and Tarry were expected to answer questions today about why so few vulnerable West Virginians have received help. Two years have passed since a devastating flood hit West Virginia.
“I’m told that neither of those individuals are here today. That disheartens me,” said Senator Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, chairman of the flood committee.
There was only one representative of the Department of Commerce in the committee’s audience at all. It was Jennifer Ferrell, community sustainability manager. She acknowledged not being well-versed in the history of Rise West Virginia.
Senator Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, wanted her to come forward anyway, to explain the whereabouts of Thompson and Tarry.
“I think it’s worthy of finding out why they didn’t show up,” Blair said.
Ferrell, standing at a podium before the committee, confirmed their Friday resignations.
Blair: “I want to know why they didn’t show up.”
Ferrell: “They no longer work for the Development Office.”
Blair: “What happened. Did they get fired?”
Ferrell: “They resigned.”
Blair: “Why did they resign?”
Ferrell didn’t know.
Legislative staff said Thompson and Tarry had, just last week, said they would be here.
Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, responded, “So hours before their resignations they confirmed they would be here.”
No one from the Department of Commerce appeared on Sunday as lawmakers heard the results of an audit of flood relief contracts. The Governor’s Office also had no one there.
Adjutant General James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard appeared before today’s committee, saying the state needs to move with deliberate speed to provide relief.
Hoyer and the Guard have their hands full. In addition to spearheading flood relief efforts, the Guard is involved with providing back up in West Virginia’s understaffed prison system as well as helping law enforcement with drug problems in the Huntington area — and its usual duties.
Late in the meeting, Hoyer said he’s been given the authority to work on hiring people for the positions vacated by Thompson and Tarry. Those positions would continue to be in the Department of Commerce.
Hoyer gently joked as he appeared before the committee today, “I haven’t resigned, but there were a couple of times I thought about it.”