EDITORIAL – Preston County News & Journal
September 16, 2016
Rowlesburg’s lack of transparency modern-day ‘Tale of Two Cities’
You could call what’s happening in the small town of Rowlesburg a modern-day “Tale of Two Cities.”
”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …”
That brief opening sentence sets the stage for the universal approach of the famous Charles Dickens book about the French Revolution. It also sounds a lot like what’s happening in the Town of Rowlesburg, especially since the town’s council meeting held on Monday, Sept. 12.
The regular public meeting was overshadowed by the revelation that town officials have been quietly paying $122,466 in delinquent payroll taxes from 2011 to 2013. Residents, media and even Sheriff Dan Loughrie were in attendance.
At the center of Monday’s controversy was longtime Mayor Barbara Banister.
The Preston County News & Journal had interviewed her prior to the Monday night public meeting. When asked about details regarding the town’s delinquent payroll tax, she told us she and the town worked out an arrangement to pay off the owed taxes.
While she was questioned about the issue during Monday’s meeting, Banister was not willing to respond or address the issues in the public setting, even asking the sheriff to remove members of the media. Wisely, the sheriff refused.
“Take that camera down,” Banister said to one member of the media.
“As far as I am concerned, you can all leave,” she added.
Perhaps Mayor Banister and members of town council should get a refresher course in West Virginia open government rules and regulations.
According to the Open Governmental Proceedings Act, which can be found on the West Virginia attorney general’s website, it “was enacted to ensure that the proceedings of all public agencies are conducted in an open and public manner, so that the people may be informed about the actions of their governments and retain control over them.”
“West Virginia state code is very clear about the public’s right to know and about open government meetings,” West Virginia Press Associated Executive Director Don Smith told the Preston County News & Journal.
The fact that the unpaid taxes remain under investigation is another reason why residents have a right to know as much information that can be released.
Preston County Prosecutor Mel Snyder confirmed in a faxed statement that the issue remains under investigation.
“At this time I cannot say that any crime was committed. However, it goes without saying that the failure to pay the withholding taxes is a significant failure by the town officials who were responsible for that function at that time.”
Bannister has emphasized that the problem arose under a prior administration.
We believe the good residents of Rowlesburg and Preston County deserve as much disclosure as permitted pending the completion of the investigation.
And upon that completion, the residents have a right to know how a town with a population of roughly 584 people, five of whom are employed by the town, could possibly accrue a payroll tax debt of $122,466.
We urge Mayor Banister, Recorder Kimberly Felton and every member of the town council to openly share this information with its citizens. After all, in a free society, transparency is government’s obligation. It is at the heart of how citizens hold their public officials accountable.