Latest News, WVPA Sharing

Richwood, W.Va.: Is Mayor Bob Henry Baber’s city on the brink of political chaos?

By Matt Combs

Register-Herald of Beckley

RICH WOOD, W.Va. — Bob Henry Baber is a little bit disorganized.

As he made his way into the Richwood Dairy Queen, Baber is carrying a manila office folder stuffed full of receipts and credit card statements.

When describing his predicament, Baber switches between the highs and lows, professing his love for his city “Merry on the Banks of the Cherry,” then moving on to how he believes he has been wronged by the City Council.

Even then he is excitable and launches into tangents of the city’s struggle with the flood and with the cleanup process that is still ongoing.

Baber is stopped by a local resident who congratulates him on the state’s Supreme Court ruling against Nicholas County school consolidation the day prior.

***

Richwood was hit hard and often by 2016. First, there was the flood.

The city suffered millions of dollars in damage to homes and city infrastructure.

The city’s sewer plant was heavily damaged, the middle school was destroyed and the high school fared little better.

Into the fray stepped Baber, who was sworn in only days before the rains fell. In the immediate aftermath, it seemed as if the city had banded together.

The cleanup began immediately and progressed enough that the city was able to hold its annual Cherry River Festival six weeks after the floodwaters receded.

Then, this. The Nicholas County Board of Education moved to close the two Richwood schools permanently, consolidating the county’s high schools to a location further west nearer to the county seat and economic hub, Summersville, and over 30 minutes from Richwood over mountainous roads.

***

Richwood today is just a shell of what it was long ago.

The railroad made its way to the valley by the Cherry in 1898, and a town was incorporated in 1901 and named for the abundant hardwoods of the area. A large sawmill was established, along with the world’s largest clothespin factory. By 1930, the city’s population topped out at 5,720.

All that began to fade with the moving of factories, the end of the railroad and the shuttering of local coal mines.

Recently, the city has begun to turn around and to attract people from near and far for its access to nature and an underlying potential.

Chuck Toussieng, now on the city council, moved from California to Richwood in 2015 and began teaching locals how to code.

There also had been talks about a wide range of development ideas including a brewery.

To outsiders, Baber sells his city’s potential of being the “Aspen of the East.”

***

According to Toussieng, the city council learned of a discrepancy with Baber’s receipts in August.

Toussieng said the council agreed to give Baber until Sept. 6 to get his receipts in order.

“As a body, we’re responsible for management and following the rules as defined by the state,” Toussieng said of the council.

In January 2017, Baber was issued a government credit card, commonly referred to as a P-card, by the state.

Baber, who views his role in the city as a bit of a spokesperson, began using the card for supplies for the city and to publicize the city’s efforts to rebuild.

The mayor purchased banners, wooden keys to the city and – among other efforts – trips to negotiate with FEMA.

Baber admitted he handed off the P-card to other city employees to purchase goods for the city or city activities, a practice which is not allowed under state regulations.

The card was also used to purchase gasoline, another prohibited practice.

To make matters worse, Baber had misplaced receipts.

Between January and August 2017, the mayor charged approximately $6,500 to the card.

Baber said that he didn’t receive any training on P-card use and that he had lost track of the receipts in the confusion of cleanup and rebuilding efforts.

Baber admits that he isn’t the most organized person in the world, but says all purchases made were to the benefit of the city.

One particularly contentious purchase on Baber’s P-card was for $35.05 at King Cut Rate Tobacco in Summersville.

According to Baber, he handed his card off to an employee to purchase groceries for a dinner for an out-of-state attorney whom Baber had met in New York who had offered to assist the City of Richwood in a fight against FEMA-backed consolidation of Nicholas County schools.

Baber said the employee had purchased a liquor for use in baking a cake that was being made to welcome the attorney.

Other large purchases from an account balance that Baber provided to The Register-Herald include:

* A $70.44 charge to a local greenhouse

* Purchases from Amazon that Baber said were for office supplies for the city.

* A $211.99 charge from Tractor Supply for a pump spot sprayer

* $624 for festival banners

* $600 to make commemorative keys to the city

* A $155.41 charge for a hotel in Pennsylvania that Baber stayed at during a wood cutting festival

* A $240.59 charge in the New Yorker Hotel during a trip when Baber met with FEMA in Philadelphia. Afterward, he headed to New York to meet with a personal attorney and attempt to gain access to the New York Times to publicize Richwood.

* A $246.71 charge at an in-state hotel that Baber said was used by two employees during a conference

* Multiple charges at the local Dollar General store.

In a move to offset charges deemed unfit, Baber opened an escrow account for $4,000 on Sept. 25.

“I doubt it will be $400,” Baber said of the nonpermissible purchases.

***

Before the Sept. 21 regular city council meeting, the Richwood city council and Baber held a closed-door executive session to discuss Baber’s P-card issue.

According to Baber, during the closed-door session, he was asked to resign by Councilwoman Robin Brown, which he refused to do.

Baber said that after he refused to resign, Toussieng then came up with the idea to place Baber on paid administrative leave.

According to Baber, in the shock of being asked to resign, he tentatively agreed to be placed on paid administrative leave.

Toussieng said the effort to put Baber on administrative leave was a move to make the city seem more fiscally responsible.

“Council and the mayor both agreed that he would be on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of any investigation by the state,” Toussieng said.

The next day, Sept. 22, Baber traveled to Charleston to self-report to the state auditor in a move that he said was to promote transparency and seek help from experts.

When he arrived and made an effort to self-report, Baber was informed by the auditor’s office that he was already under investigation.

During his time at the auditor’s office, Baber admitted to handing off his card to other city employees, a behavior that he said he had seen citywide.

Upon that admission, the auditor’s office decided to turn off the remaining P-cards issued to the City of Richwood.

***

According to Baber, after sleeping on the idea of a paid administrative leave, he began to have second thoughts.

Baber contacted attorney Richie Robb, who had served as mayor of South Charleston for many years, for legal advice.

According to Baber, Robb informed him that the council had no grounds to place him on administrative leave and that Baber should retain his duties as mayor until a decision by the state or direct legal action by the city council.

“There are processes by which a mayor is removed,” Baber said.

According to Baber, the city charter provides two ways a mayor can be removed from office: through an impeachment hearing before a judge, or by charges by the city council and a two-thirds vote for removal.

“We decided to put it in the hands of the state, act like fiscally responsible adults, follow the state P-card rules in which we are compelled to report,” Toussieng said. “The city is in a very precarious position right now financially.”

Baber isn’t swayed by the words of the council members and believes that he is being targeted for removal by the council.

“I have sympathy for the council in some ways, because every penny counts,” Baber said. “It’s true, I’ve said publicly that I handed off my P-card to other people to purchase for the city.”

Toussieng believes that the actions of the council were necessary in order to prevent further chaos.

“It’s just a really bad position to have to be in, but unfortunately we are compelled to report to the state in the statute,” he said. “If you look at what we could have done, more easily actually then this route, why would we have not taken that route?”

Baber said he acknowledges that he made a mistake, but offers the hectic nature of post-flood Richwood as a reason.

The flamboyant mayor, who wears his love for Richwood on his sleeve, said he believes that the city can band together one more time and that he could “forgive and forget” the actions he believes were aimed at discrediting his role as mayor.

While Baber must wait for the results of the investigation by the auditor’s office, he said he will continue to act as the city’s mayor in any way possible.

He showed up at the council’s regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday night – only to be escorted out by a police officer.

Email: [email protected]; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH

Comments are closed.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter