Council action warrants more questioning | Opinion


This is not a holier-than-thou column. It’s just my meandering thoughts when I see something that puzzles me.

In my old age, I vaguely remember journalism classes. Maybe I missed the ones that said, “if an official says it, just believe it’s true.” Let me quickly add that I’m the one who constantly reminds readers that not all public officials are crooks and liars. The majority are not, no matter what anyone believes to the contrary.

In the current case, I am not even thinking of an instance where I think a public official is intentionally misleading anyone. I am considering Richwood City Council and giving the benefit of the doubt.

I wonder whether my media colleagues are entitled to such benefit.

When the Nicholas County town that was ravaged by flood last year watched as its city council put its elected mayor on “paid administrative leave,” I have to believe council actually thought they were following some legal governmental concept. Corporations put employees on “paid administrative leave.” Governments do not do the same with elected officials, however.

The biggest point of difference here is that elected public officials are chosen by the people.

The process to remove an elected official is rightfully long and tedious. City councils do not do it in one quick stroke. The will of the people, as expressed by their votes, is supreme. Actually, Richwood council did not even try to remove Bob Henry Baber as mayor; they thought they suspended him with pay.

By the time this column appears, the whole matter will hopefully be resolved. Baber has obtained former South Charleston Mayor Richard Robb to represent him and cooler heads seem to be prevailing.

In the meantime, my gripe is with journalists who just accepted council’s decision that Baber had been placed on “paid administrative leave.” As far as I can tell, none asked, “uhhh … can council do that? Where in the law does it say they have that right?”

Thus, media story after story repeated that Baber was on “paid administrative leave.” In three words, he was not. He could not have been placed on such leave because there is no concept like that in state code or city charter.

I make mistakes. As longtime readers know, I confess to making one in 1972 and another in 1986. I don’t think I’m a better journalist because I ask how an official can legally do what he or she claims to be doing. But, isn’t that the obvious follow-up question?

Can anyone imagine Huntington City Council putting Mayor Steve Williams on “paid administrative leave”? How about Charleston council doing the same with Mayor Danny Jones?

If the 2018 election was today, I believe Williams would be the Democrat and Cabell Delegate Carol Miller would be the Republican nominee for the 3rd District congressional seat.

I cut my newspapering teeth with Jim Comstock and the West Virginia Hillbilly in, of all places, Richwood. Comstock, a bit of an eccentric (I learned that term in charm school), once ran as a Republican for Congress against incumbent Democrat John Slack. One of his pranks included putting two black snakes in a storefront window at his Charleston headquarters. He labeled one “Hubert” and the other “Lyndon,” referring to the sitting Democrat vice president and president.

It will not take a rocket scientist to figure out which political campaigns benefited from what the federal government claims were illegal campaign contributions from Morgantown businessman James L. Laurita Jr.

An indictment in the Northern District federal court outlines the scheme Laurita allegedly used to give the money. By identifying the campaigns as coming between 2010 and 2013 and being, for example, a “candidate for election and re-election to the U.S. senate,” the tips are there to signal who the recipients were.

Of course, it is not illegal for any of those campaigns to have received such contributions without their knowledge. It may be a bit embarrassing, though.

Ron Gregory is a former Glenville mayor, Kanawha County administrator and assistant mayor of Charleston. Reach him at 304-533-5185 or ronjgregory@gmail.com.

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