PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — A petition to empanel a three-judge court to decide whether Mayor Bob Newell can remain in office is bound for Charleston.
The petition, bearing 150 signatures collected by a citizens group calling itself the Committee, was filed Monday afternoon in Wood County Circuit Court. County Republican Party Chairman Rob Cornelius said after filing it that there were some signatures from people living outside the city limits, but even after taking them out there were approximately 130, well over the minimum of 25 required under state code.
The petition claims Newell is incompetent as defined in section 6-6-1 of the West Virginia code, citing “gross immorality, willful waste of public funds and adultery.” The allegations follow the filing of complaints with the West Virginia Ethics Commission claiming Newell misused city money, time and property while conducting an extramarital affair with Finance Director Ashley Flowers.
Newell has declined to confirm or deny the affair, but maintains no laws were broken. Flowers has publicly apologized for the affair but also says she broke no laws.
The mayor has said repeatedly that he welcomes a review by a three-judge panel. When that will occur has yet to be determined.
An employee in Wood County Circuit Court Chief Judge J.D. Beane’s office said Tuesday the petition was being forwarded to the West Virginia Supreme Court. Under state law, Chief Justice Margaret Workman will select a panel of three circuit judges to hear and decide the case.
“She has complete discretion about who to appoint,” said Jennifer Bundy, public information officer for the court.
The only guidance in the code on the makeup of that panel is that no more than one of them may be from the local circuit. There is no requirement that any of the judges be local.
“Historically, the chief has not appointed someone from that area,” Bundy said, citing potential conflicts of interest.
Beane has already recused himself from two lawsuits related to the matter filed by Finance Department employees against the city, citing his friendship with Newell.
Initially, Wood County Clerk Mark Rhodes and members of his staff anticipated being called upon to verify the authenticity of at least 25 of the signatures. But deputy clerk Melody Ross said Wednesday that they will not be involved in the process.
“It is something totally to do with the judicial system,” she said.
Bundy did not have information on what process, if any, would be used to verify the signatures on the petitions. Beane’s office did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
Among the signers of the petition was Parkersburg City Councilwoman Kim Coram. State code says that in addition to 25 residents or 1 percent of the total number of voters participating in the last municipal election, any elected municipal officer, such as a council member, may request the review.
“I was willing to request the review myself but felt it was more important to support the citizens’ work and involvement in government,” Coram said in an email Tuesday.
She said she supported the effort because she wants to have as many organizations as possible review the issues before the city “so we can put this behind us.”
There is no rule in the code on when a hearing on the matter is to be held beyond the requirement that it can be no less than 20 days after the filing of the petition.
When such a petition was filed in 2011 against then-Wood County Sheriff Jeff Sandy, the panel of judges was announced within a week, but the hearing did not take place for more than three months.