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WV secretary of state defends firing 1/3 of staff

By PHIL KABLER

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner on Monday defended his decision to fire 16 longtime employees upon taking office in January, an action that has resulted in wrongful-termination lawsuits being filed against him.

“It’s just what we needed to do to move the office forward,” Warner told the Senate Finance Committee.

“You know what it looks like on the surface,” Sen. Doug Facemire, D-Braxton, told Warner, who fired about one-third of the office’s staff — including many non-management employees who had anywhere from eight to 50 years of service.

Warner subsequently replaced them with 22 new hires, including new positions of regional field service representatives for seven regions around the state.

Because of the pending litigation, Warner said he could not discuss specifics of the firings, but commented, “Some of these people were leaving anyway.”

As for the necessity of creating field service representatives in the midst of a $500 million state budget crisis, Warner said, “It’s an outreach to first mend the relationships with many of the county clerks.”

Warner did not elaborate. During the campaign, he raised issues about county clerks who refused to accept online voter registrations through the Secretary of State’s Office, as well as county clerks who complained when the office sent postcards to individuals identified by a national database as being eligible to vote but unregistered.

Warner said the regional representatives also are to assist with the business registration and licensing functions of the office.

“It’s basically mobile secretary of state field offices, if you will,” he told the committee.

Warner has created seven field service regions but, to date, has hired just six representatives, with the position for the eight-county Eastern Panhandle region still unfilled.

He said the field service representatives will work out of their homes, with the exception of Terry Waxman, who also is manager of Warner’s Fairmont office.

Warner told senators Monday that the additional hires did not increase the overall personnel budget for the office.

“We’re working within the existing budget,” he said.

Also Monday, Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughry told the House Finance Committee that the court’s current caseload does not warrant the $10 million to $15 million cost of creating an intermediate court of appeals.

Loughry said operating costs for the court, promoted by certain business interests, cannot be funded out of the court’s $141.76 million budget, and would require additional appropriations.

“If the intermediate court is passed, it simply can’t be absorbed,” he said. “We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars.”

Loughry said Supreme Court caseload peaked at 1,346 written opinions in 2013, three years after the court enacted absolute right of appeal rules, requiring the court to issue written opinions on every appeal filed.

In recent years, he said, the court has had a very manageable caseload of about 900 cases a year.

“We’re setting cases for arguments within a month, a month-and-a-half,” Loughry said, saying that is an unusual level of efficiency for a state Supreme Court.

He noted that, when Nevada created an intermediate appeals court, it had a backlog of more than 3,000 cases.

Loughry said nearly 90 percent of the Supreme Court’s budget — which also covers costs of operating circuit courts, family courts and magistrate courts statewide — is mandated by law, leaving little discretionary spending.

“We’re in a position where there isn’t going to be anything left to cut,” he said, noting that the court cut its current budget by $2 million and has no funding increases in its 2017-18 budget request. “We can’t shut down the courts.”

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