Ethics panel issues advisory opinion

PARKERSBURG – The West Virginia Ethics Commission Committee on Open Governmental Meetings has filed an advisory opinion on proposed changes in Wood County’s agenda and meeting procedures.

As of Wednesday morning, a copy of the opinion, dated May 2, had not made its way to Wood County officials.

The ethics commission basically ruled the proposed changes are in compliance with the state’s Open Meetings Act.

Contacted Wednesday by the Parkersburg News and Sentinel, Commissioner Blair Couch, who was on the committee that proposed the changes, said the advisory opinion was good news.

“We just want to make sure the public has the ability to see what the county commission is doing and if they wish their voice to be heard, they know how to do that. We want to be open and accessible; it’s very important. That’s why government is in business; to serve the public,” Couch said.

The opinion notes the statute does not set a specific deadline for making an agenda available to the public, just that it be within a “reasonable time” in advance of the meeting. The committee ruled the Wood County Commission complies with the Open Meetings Act if it makes the agenda available for public viewing “at least two days prior to the meeting.”

The Ethics Commission committee ruled making available a list of invoices available for public review prior to the meeting is also an acceptable procedure. Invoices cannot be added after the deadline and the name of the vendor and amount of the invoice approved must be included with the meeting minutes. When awarding a grant or funding request, the agenda must identify each potential recipient by name and the information must also be included in the minutes.

The opinion notes the committee modified the commission’s proposal to include only action items involving the expenditure or reimbursement of public funds have to be included.

The county commission also asked to add a standing agenda item relating to payroll modifications. County employees are paid at the middle and end of each month, and county clerk Jamie Six had pointed out that depending on when overtime or a change in pay is made, it could potentially be two or more weeks before the county commission could act on it, based on their new meeting schedule. The commission, on a 2-1 vote in January, voted to meet each Monday and on the first third Thursdays of the month, previously they met every Monday and Thursday.

The advisory opinion states no amendment can be made to an agenda less than two days before the meeting, unless it’s an “emergency.” The committee noted the Legislature has approved a new definition of “emergency,” which includes “an imminent material financial loss or other imminent substantial harm to a public agency, its employees or the members of the public which it serves.”

The advisory opinion states the payroll concerns qualify.

“This is the type of imminent material financial loss to a public employee contemplated by the amendment,” and allowed the county commission to amend its agenda less than two days before. The commission must identify specifically the payroll modification by department and shall be posted in a public commission place and on the commission website.

Wood County Deputy Clerk Mark Rhodes said the cutoff is seven days before payroll for changes, and depending on when the change is made and all the necessary paperwork ready, it could be two or more weeks before it would go through and the change was made or the overtime paid out with the county commission’s current meeting schedule.

Rhodes said the proposed change and the ruling should help, addressing any delays in payroll and assuring employees are paid what they are owed in a timely manner. “We just wanted to make sure everything was addressed,” Rhodes said.

The commission earlier forwarded the proposed changes to the ethics commission asking for an advisory opinion. The proposed changes were in answer to concerns over the compliance of the Open Meetings Law and changes in the meeting scheduling approved at the beginning of this year on a 2-1 vote with Couch dissenting.

Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton reviewed the law, Ethics Commission rulings and opinions and agendas from other county commissions. Following a meeting with the prosecutor, the commissioners then appointed a committee of Couch, Wharton and county administrator Marty Seufer to provide recommendations. The recommendations were made to the commission as a whole then forwarded to the Ethics Commission for an advisory opinion.