The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 9, 2013

Commission president needs refresher course on law

The Back Porch column

By Nerissa Young
Columnist

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National Sunshine Week begins Sunday. It is a week set aside by news media and all those who advocate open government to urge such openness for a vital democracy. The week always falls during James Madison’s birthday because Madison wrote the First Amendment, from which the courts have extrapolated a “right to know.”

Recent goings-on among members of the Greenbrier County Commission suggest this is a good week to remind that body of the importance of openness and transparency.

A week ago, The Register-Herald reported a continuing verbal scrap between newly elected commission president Karen Lobban and newly re-elected commissioner Woody Hanna over who has final say to put items on the commission’s meeting agendas.

Lobban maintains that she, as president, has sole discretion per tradition. Hanna maintains that he, as an equal member of the commission, has a right to place items on agendas if done so sufficiently in advance of the meetings.

The discussion over agenda rights is masking something deeper and potentially more dangerous.

Let me say at the outset that I think both are good people. I covered the commission during Hanna’s first term. He brought an Everyman sensibility to the group. Lobban is from a prominent family in Alderson. While I never met her, I never heard a bad word about her, and that speaks volumes in a small town.

The deeper issue is differing interpretations over the role of government and its elected leaders. And here, I have to side with Hanna and the law.

The preamble to the state’s open meetings law is pretty clear in its intent: “The people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments of government created by them.”

Control rests with the people, not a commission or even a single elected commissioner.

Using one’s elected position to thwart public discussion about matters of public concern is a clear violation of the law’s intent.

The Register-Herald reported Lobban saying during the meeting: “I’m not going to put things on the agenda that’s going to cause an uproar … I want things on the agenda that will not cause arguments.”

While her goal of maintaining civility is laudable — and ongoing public feuds can bring effective governance to a halt — squelching discussion on any potentially divisive issue will not serve her, the commission or the people of Greenbrier County in the long run. That attitude will not imbue confidence in the governing process.

Yet even more sinister is what she said near the end of the discussion: “Some of these things we need to discuss with each other, it doesn’t have to be (at) a meeting. I’d rather we talk about things in our offices than come here and do it in public.”

That, madam president, is a blatant violation of the open meetings law. Discussing the public’s business outside the public’s view will land an official in court on criminal and civil charges.

It is possible for people of differing opinions to work and serve together collegially. It’s also possible for the public to air its concerns and for government to still function. A basic respect shown to all usually cures any such disagreeing ills.

Lobban is well reminded of what she said upon being elected president just a few weeks ago, “There’s not anything that can’t be worked out.”

If she doesn’t reconsider the agenda disagreement and find a way to work it out, the next six years will become the very thing she doesn’t want — arguments and uproar and court appearances.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail: ynerissa@frontier.com

© 2013 by Nerissa Young