CHARLESTON, W.Va. — County-level emergency services directors are expressing serious reservations about a bill that could cement in law the National Guard’s oversight of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The bill also would establish a State Resiliency Officer just a notch below the governor and over all agencies in cases of emergency.
West Virginia’s 911 Council voted last week in opposition to the bill if it remains as-is. A related group, the West Virginia Emergency Management Council, plans a vote this week.
They’re concerned about the National Guard’s level of authority, whether the process for hiring personnel is too loose, who would oversee how grant dollars are used and how much authority would be in the hands of the State Resiliency Officer.
“The way the bill is written right now, we don’t care for it,” said Dean Meadows, who is president of the emergency management council and president of the 911 council. “We feel like it gives too much power to one individual.”
Over the past six months, the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has operated under the authority of the West Virginia National Guard.
Gov. Jim Justice made that declaration via memorandum last Oct. 3.
“Disjointed plans at a strategic level, can significantly degrade the integration and synchronization of the disaster response,” Justice wrote.
Justice wrote that West Virginia needs to have a comprehensive and coordinated response effort.
“The Adjutant General’s Department is uniquely positioned with the personnel, equipment and experience to serve in such a role,” Justice wrote.
The governor wrote that the move would eventually become law.
“I will work with my staff to introduce legislation which will make permanent these actions and will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management,” he wrote.
The bill passed the state Senate during the most recent legislative session but didn’t make it out of the House Government Organization Committee.
An updated version of the bill has been discussed as part of the agenda for a special session that could happen the third week of May.
Proposed realignment for emergency response oversight
Brian Abraham, general counsel for the Governor’s Office, said the bill may be revised in an attempt to ease concerns.
The possible change would keep Homeland Security and Emergency Management in the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
“Our way forward is probably still to create the Resiliency Office and have the Guard directly under that and leave DHSEM under DMAPS, so the turmoil doesn’t undercut the improvements we’re trying to make there,” he said in a Monday telephone interview.
“When we heard their concerns the other day, we reconfigured what we were doing.”
He said the administration wants a State Resiliency Officer to coordinate state agencies during emergency situations.
“That was a person that would be working directly to the governor and would be a conduit through which the governor would operate through all of the various cabinet level offices in the event of an emergency or a flood,” Abraham said.
Abraham said the administration has been trying to reduce turf battles and to improve responsiveness.
“A lot of these agencies at the lower levels try to run themselves,” he said. “That information doesn’t always flow up and there’s no good continuity between the two.”
He acknowledged meeting last week with representatives of the emergency managers groups.
“Now apparently we’ve got some personalities at the county level that feel like some of the hires that were made at DHSEM weren’t people they liked or agreed with. But we listened to them,” Abraham said.
“And talking to them the other day, they were worried about the militarization of DHSEM. They were worried that it was going to be a retirement home, revolving door of guard members.”
State Homeland Security Director Michael Todorovich, a longtime member of the National Guard, has talked enthusiastically about the hiring flexibility and support available under the current setup.
Abraham said Todorovich is one of only a handful of new Emergency Management employees with National Guard experience.
Concerns raised by emergency services directors
The structure under the National Guard is one of the big concerns, said Meadows, who is also the Wyoming County Emergency Services director.
“We just don’t know how that would play out now that you have a support agency in the lead of the major agency we’re doing with in times of disaster,” Meadows said. “We feel like it should be more of a partnership.”
Meadows also expressed concern about the proposed State Resiliency Officer, acknowledging the position could help coordinate multiple agencies but wondering about the amount of power with a single person.
“The scope of that authority is a little concerning,” Meadows said. “This resiliency officer would even be over all the cabinet officers as well. He’s the head even of all the cabinet secretaries at this time. That’s a pretty big position if you think about it.”
Meadows was pleased that last week’s meeting with Abraham occurred, but he wasn’t sure everyone saw eye-to-eye.
“When we left the meeting, none of us were saying we felt all warm and fuzzy about what the other one said,” Meadows said. “But none of us felt like we weren’t listened to, either.”
Laura Pysz, the vice president of the West Virginia Emergency Management Council, agreed.
“It’s a huge concern for us,” Pysz said.
On the State Resiliency Officer, Pysz said: “It’s like a deputy governor.”
On the National Guard taking the lead, she said: “The National Guard is a support entity. They should not be in the command role.”
On the hiring latitude for Emergency Services under the National Guard: “We want to make sure there are qualified individuals in those positions. We do not want those positions to be filled because it’s a friend of a friend or someone who’s retiring from the Guard and needs a retirement job.”
On finances: “We were worried about grant funding, worried about funding being taken away from counties and going to the National Guard.”
Last fall’s step toward increased authority by the National Guard was accompanied by the easing out of longtime state Emergency Services Director Jimmy Gianato.
Questions were raised repeatedly during Gianato’s tenure over his oversight of finances. He was removed last fall as emergency services director and then abruptly announced his retirement a few weeks ago.
Identifying a qualified replacement, rather than a full-scale restructuring, would be more appropriate, Pysz said.
“There was nothing wrong with the structure,” said Pysz, who is also the Harrison County Emergency Services director. “There were issues with the leadership in the DHSEM side.
“Just because the fire department might have a bad fire chief, would you restructure the whole fire department or just replace the fire chief?”
She raised those concerns with Abraham but by Monday didn’t feel like the worries had been addressed.
“There’s been no reassurance,” she said.
To reflect the changes in state code, lawmakers would have to agree.
House Government Organization Chairman Gary Howell on Monday said he generally supports the bill. But confusion over what the bill would do wound up dooming it in the committee he leads.
Howell, R-Mineral, said he has been impressed by progress under the National Guard so far, pointing to quick response to a dirtslide that affected his district.
“To me, it’s been fairly efficient,” he said. “I generally saw it as a good piece of legislation.”
Senator Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, is co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding. He favored the bill, emphasizing possibilities to move more aggressively to demolish abandoned properties that are common in West Virginia.
“I’ll be very pleased if that winds up on the agenda,” Swope said.
Delegate Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha, is the other chairman of the flood committee.
He isn’t sold on the bill, worrying that it takes power from the volunteer organizations that provided great support after the catastrophic 2016 flood.
“I have some hesitations with the way it came out when we were in session,” Jeffries said. “I wasn’t a big fan of the bill.”
The topic may come up during a Tuesday afternoon meeting of the flood committee. Jeffries expected to discuss the possibility of establishing the State Resiliency Officer.
The level of power that comes with that position was a likely topic.
“That was the issue we saw, that there might be too much power,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll address that and see where they stand.”