By Wendy Holdren
After seeking outside legal guidance to determine whether Beckley Common Council could remove Mayor Emmett Pugh from office, Councilmen-at-Large Tim Berry and Cedric Robertson have recommended that no further action should be taken against the mayor.
Although they have elected not to take action to remove the mayor from office, the two said according to their attorney, they had a right to do so.
Berry and Robertson released a joint statement after meeting with a Charleston attorney, who informed them that “our city charter is not outdated or voided by state law.”
At the last Common Council meeting, some debate was brought up about whether a state law stating that council would not have the legal authority to remove a mayor from office superseded a city charter.
“After reviewing the probable cause finding and the conciliatory agreement, the attorney felt we did have cause to remove the mayor. In fact, after review of our charter, he found we actually have an express duty to bring charges.”
Robertson and Berry explained that the process would entail council bringing forth charges, then voting on removing the mayor from office. If council voted to remove the mayor, he would remain in office until the county prosecutor brought charges. Three circuit court judges would then convene to make the decision.
“It was the opinion of the attorney that the mayor would ultimately be removed. The process would take a minimum of three months, possibly up to 11 months.”
The councilmen-at-large said they considered several factors while making their decision.
“The citizens would bare a high cost in prosecuting the case. The city would suffer more embarrassment. The mayor would also suffer additional embarrassment and substantial cost in legal fees… Since the mayor is leaving in January, it just did not make sense to seek early removal.”
Councilman Chris Hall said he fully supports the recommendation of the councilmen-at-large.
“While they have communicated that legal counsel advised them that council had both the ability and standing to act, I agree it is simply not worth further dividing council or the financial costs involved to push legal action that will take a majority of the mayor’s remaining time in office to conclude.”
Hall said the charges brought against Pugh by the West Virginia Ethics Commission “were of an extremely serious nature” and “they resulted in a settlement with significant sanctions.”
“Given the contents of the agreement, I believe that Common Council had a duty to the citizens of Beckley to perform our due diligence and not simply toss the matter aside because it was the easy or popular thing to do.”
Hall said council has been able to come to a consensus on a course of action to allow the city business to move forward over the next six months “without persistent attacks and bickering.”
“I look forward to working with both the mayor and council on the difficult transition that we face in replacing an administration that has provided 25 years of leadership to our city.”
When The Register-Herald spoke with Pugh Tuesday evening, he was not aware that council had decided not to take any further legal action against him.
“I had not heard that, but I think that’s entirely appropriate,” Pugh said.
He said while the city’s comprehensive plan will not be finished in its entirety by the end of the year, it will be substantially complete and he is glad to be able to see most of it through. He said the Intermodal Project also needs to be “buttoned up,” as well as a few other punchlist items.
While Pugh admitted no guilt in his Ethics settlement, he agreed to retire at the end of the year. Starting Jan. 1, 2014, he agreed not to hold public office for five years. As a part of the agreement, Pugh must also pay $7,000 reimbursement for the cost of the investigation.
The nine ethics violations were made public knowledge in April 2012, and included the use of public office for private gain, accepting improper gifts, use of a public office for his own private gain and private gain of another and prohibited interest in public contracts.