County officials discuss procedural changes

PARKERSBURG – Based on a West Virginia Ethics Commission Committee on Open Governmental Meetings advisory opinion, Wood County officials are discussing some procedural changes.

Earlier this month, the ethics commission ruled the proposed changes submitted by Wood County are in compliance with the state’s Open Meetings Act. Prosecutor Jason Wharton said the county officials wanted to wait on the committee’s ruling before altering policies or procedures. A committee, which consisted of Commissioner Blair Couch, Wharton and county administrator Marty Seufer proposed the changes after concerns about compliance with the state’s Open Meetings Law were raised.

During what was designated a “work session,” the commissioners earlier discussed numerous items not listed on their agenda and made a number of rulings, including allocating funds to several entities without prior notification to the public. During a subsequent meeting with the commissioners, the prosecutor pointed out “a work session, where a quorum of a governing body is present and matters requiring official action by the governing body are discussed, are meetings subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Act.”

The commissioners then formed the committee and the proposed changes were submitted to the ethics commission for consideration. 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.” Under the current schedule that means the agenda must be ready Tuesday afternoon if there is a Thursday meeting, and Thursday afternoon for a Monday meeting. The commission voted in January to hold meetings on Mondays and the first and third Thursday monthly.

“We will also be adding a line item on your agenda informing the public that correspondence including invoices, exonerations that will be acted on during that next meeting will be available for public viewing during regular office hours starting late in the day two days prior to the meeting,” Seufer told commissioners. “Nothing will be added to that after the close of business on Tuesday or Thursday.”

“If there is an emergency, like a grant or something that needs to be added on to the agenda, there may be special circumstances,” Commissioner Blair Couch noted.

“If it falls under the new definition of emergency as outlined by the Legislature, it can be added, you just have to explain why,” Wharton said.

New deadlines for invoices caused some concern for the clerk’s office finance department.

“We will have to cut off the deadline a day early,” county Clerk Jamie Six said. “That could cause more late fees.”

“We will need to make some modifications to the current purchasing procedures to comply,” Seufer said.

Six said it was the county commission’s policies that “created the difficulties in the first place. Why don’t you just have a standing order, like other counties do, that as long as a purchase isn’t over the budgeted amount available, it goes through. You have always wanted to see all of them. You have already approved the purchase, so you still have prior knowledge and if the funds aren’t there a red flag comes up in our office,” Six said.

“It seems like this is more complicated than it needs to be. I’m not sure why the previous commissions did it this way. It seems like duplication,” Commissioner Steve Gainer said.

Couch, the senior member of the commission, noted the commissioners have the right to request further clarification of a purchase, noting there have been issues of concern in the past.

“I’m not against changing policies or procedures, as long as we maintain checks and balances,” Couch said.

“We wanted to wait until the opinion was rendered before addressing purchase order procedure changes,” Wharton said.

“The key is not overspending. If it is it comes up red, we know to stop it,” Six said. “We’ve been discussing this for the last two years.”

Commission President Wayne Dunn asked Six and Seufer to discuss changes and submit recommendations for the county commission to consider.