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Rowlesburg mayor’s effort to remove media from meeting adds to tax debt controversy

By John Dahlia


Preston Journal

ROWLESBURG, W.Va.  — Rowlesburg Mayor Barbara Banister’s attempt to remove members of the media from Monday’s town council meeting has added to controversy surrounding the town’s tax debt and could have been a violation of the state’s open meetings law had it been carried out.

Banister requested Preston Sheriff Dan Loughrie to remove the media after questions regarding the tax debt surfaced from the crowd of about 15 residents.

Loughrie told the Preston County News & Journal that Banister called him prior to the meeting asking him to remove the media. Loughrie attended the meeting and said he brought with him a copy of the state open meetings act statute. According to Loughrie, he informed Banister that according to state law, the media had the right to attend the meeting and use image and sound recording devices.

 The meeting focused on the town’s delinquent payroll tax debt of $122,466 first reported in the Preston County Journal.

“This all happened when I was out of office,” Banister said prior to the Monday meeting. She served as mayor from 2003 to 2011, then was re-elected in 2013.

As residents and media questioned Banister on Monday, she refused to answer most questions and asked for the media to stop recording.

“Take that camera down,” Banister said to one member of the media who was attempting to record video during the proceeding.

“As far as I am concerned you can all leave,” she answered back when reporters asked her why she didn’t want the media at the meeting.

She also said, “I don’t want you here,” referring to the media.

Addressing Mayor Banister’s efforts to stop reporters and remove the media from the meeting, West Virginia Press Association Executive Director Don Smith said the mayor’s actions were disappointing.


“West Virginia state code is very clear about the public’s right to know and about open government meetings,” Smith said.

West Virginia’s open meetings act, Smith said, is perhaps one of easiest to understand sections of state code:

“The Legislature hereby finds and declares that public agencies in this state exist for the singular purpose of representing citizens of this state in governmental affairs, and it is, therefore, in the best interests of the people of this state for the proceedings of public agencies be conducted openly, with only a few clearly defined exceptions.”

Smith noted that state code gives the power of government to the people, not to elected officials. State code, Smith said, even recognizes the benefit to having the press in attendance at open government meetings.

“The majority of residents of any community — Rowlesburg included — count on the local media to cover the meeting, highlight the larger issues and provide an account of activities,” Smith said. “Educating the people of a community on the actions of government is the role of the press in this country. Mayor Banister’s actions certainly went against the stated intent of the state’s open meetings act.”

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