By September 28, 2017 Read More →

Email suggests offer to trade legislation for WV road bond support

By JAKE ZUCKERMAN

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — An internal email from the West Virginia Municipal League appears to detail a trade between the association and Gov. Jim Justice – the municipalities’ support for the road bond referendum in exchange for legislation.

The Sept. 8 email, from Debbie Price, a WVML worker, went to board members, namely town and city officials, gauging support for the proposal. It references Lisa Dooley, WVML executive director.

“Dear Board Members, Lisa has been in discussions with Governor Justice and he has committed to run our home rule bill,” she wrote. “We are proofing draft. We asked for permanent program, funding for board, Gore Marshall’s language. All cities can apply. In return we have been asked to support the road bond. May we proceed?”

The ‘home rule bill’ refers to legislation that would make the home rule pilot program permanent. That program, started in 2007, gives participating city or county governments more latitude in self-governance and the ability to sidestep certain state laws and requirements.

The Legislature passed Senate Bill 441 that would have made the program permanent, though the governor vetoed the proposal in April. WVML officials said Justice vetoed the rule because his cabinet secretaries and attorneys worried that without tweaks, the bill could cause them to lose federal funds.

A Justice spokesman did not respond to a comment request for this report.

When asked about the email, Dooley said no transaction took place. She said she never spoke with Justice directly, and that efforts to put forward another home rule bill were ongoing before Justice’s road bond push.

“I was contacted by [Department of Transportation] Secretary [Tom] Smith and his office, who said they had ran into a little opposition from mayors who said they wanted home rule, and they weren’t prepared to support the road bond until they got home rule,” Dooley said. “So I said, ‘Well, we’ll put out the information, let the cities know that we’re fully behind the road bond issue, we’re working with the attorney on home rule, and try to calm some fears out there that we won’t get home rule.’”

She went on to say the email was not worded carefully, that she did not write it herself, and the phrase ‘in return’ was a misnomer.

“I think you’re reading something into it, that’s not what it was,” she said. “It wasn’t, ‘We’ll work on the road bond if you pass home rule.’ We were asked to calm the mayors’ fears down, and the governor wasn’t involved in that.”

Likewise, Travis Blosser, Weirton city manager and WVML board member, said while it may look bad, the WVML was working on the home rule bill before the road bond campaign came together, basically since Justice vetoed it.

However, he said he sees how the email raises a red flag.

“I think it could have been worded differently,” he said.

Several WVML members offered different takes.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams, whose city passed a resolution to support the road bond Monday, said deal-making is just part of politics.

“I don’t see it as anything untoward and I don’t see it as anything improper, I just see this as horsetrading in its most classic view,” he said. “People who are offended by that just have never witnessed the making of sausage.”

Meanwhile, Winfield Mayor Randy Barrett said his council passed a referendum at its last meeting, as well, to support the bond, but the home rule bill had nothing to do with it.

“I didn’t really pay much attention to that. I’m not interested in home rule,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing, but the city of Winfield is not interested in that.”

When asked his thoughts on the quid pro quo appearance of the support, he said it’s how these things go.

“I think it’s the way a lot of politics are: You help me here, I’ll help you there,” he said. “I think it happens underneath that gold dome every time they’re sitting under there in that Legislature. I think it’s just standard procedure, if you ask me.”

Morgantown Mayor Bill Kawecki said he does not care what circumstances the resolution to support the referendum underwent, he only cares about its merits alone.

Kawecki said Tuesday afternoon the city council is likely to agree to support the road bond at its work session that evening. WAJR has since reported the council added the matter to its regularly scheduled meeting for Oct. 5.

Voters will decide Oct. 7 whether to amend the state’s constitution to allow for the issuance of $1.6 billion in bonds to build and upgrade roads and bridges in the state.

Reach Jake Zuckerman at jake.zuckerman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814 or @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.

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