By Evan Bevins
The Parkersburg News And Sentinel
PARKERS BURG, W.Va. — Flanked by department heads, his attorneys and supporters, Mayor Bob Newell announced his retirement Wednesday morning, the day before a hearing to determine whether he could remain in office was to convene.
“The reason I’m doing it, really, is for, No. 1, my family, but No. 2, the city,” he said during a press conference in the fifth-floor conference room next to the mayor’s office at the Municipal Building.
A former Parkersburg police officer and chief, Newell,62, is the first mayor elected to three consecutive terms since the strong mayor form of government was adopted in 1969. With 19 months remaining in his third and final term, he stepped down, effective midnight, amidst allegations he had an affair with city Finance Director Ashley Flowers and misused city resources in the process.
“Quite frankly I didn’t want to drag my wife through this hearing,” Newell said.
The hearing, scheduled to take place today and Friday, was prompted by a petition signed by 151 people and filed by Parkersburg resident Rob Cornelius, chairman of the Wood County Republican Party.
Cornelius named Newell’s wife, Debbie, as one of the witnesses he might call in the hearing. The mayor’s attorneys, Harry Deitzler and David Sims, argued she could not be forced to testify based on the marital communications privilege, but a ruling from the panel issued Monday said she could be called as a witness and whether she could answer certain questions would be addressed during the hearing.
Cornelius said Monday he did not expect to call Debbie Newell as a witness.
Newell said his retirement was the fifth happiest day of his life, ranking his marriage to his wife, the births of his two children and the birth of his grandchild ahead of it.
“We’ve been best friends for 45 years,” he said of his wife. “We met when I was 16 and she was 14. Love of my life.”
Later during the press conference, Cornelius, who entered a few minutes after it started, loudly asked Newell why his wife wasn’t in attendance. The mayor ignored him.
Newell named City Attorney Joe Santer as acting mayor. The city charter gives the city Democratic Executive Committee 10 days from the vacancy in office, starting today, to nominate three candidates, one of whom is to be selected by a two- thirds vote of City Council.
The decision to leave now was not an easy one, Newell said.
“My first thought about this is if I don’t fight this, every mayor after me is going to have to face this,” he said.
If a mayor spends what someone thinks is too much on a business lunch, 25 citizens could sign a petition seeking his or her removal, Newell said. A hotel bill in Indianapolis for $521 – $116.54 of which was for room service charges Newell said were made in error and he repaid – was one of the issues cited in the petition for his removal. It was also alleged Flowers accompanied him on that trip, ostensibly related to efforts to bring a baseball stadium and team to the city.
Newell said his decision to retire was not an admission of guilt, but an effort to allow his family and the city to move on. Media coverage of the situation has been negative and repetitive, the mayor said.
“It hasn’t been good for the city,” he said. “It’s not a good image.”
Newell said he did not want the remainder of his term to be spent fighting the allegations.
“I’m going to be a target for that group for the next 18 months,” Newell said.
Newell made reference to the Committee, a group formed in the wake of the allegations that supported the petition drive. Some members filed complaints with the West Virginia Ethics Commission against him.
Contacted after the announcement, Parkersburg resident Christi Walcutt, a member of the Committee, said one of the group’s goals had been accomplished: to have Newell removed from office because of his actions.
“I’m elated he finally did the right thing,” she said. “Now the city can move forward.”
Newell said he believes he and his administrative team have done a lot of good for the city during his tenure, citing efforts to get vacant downtown buildings like the former UpTowner Inn and the Union Trust Bank Building occupied again, completion of upgrades at Point Park, the construction of the Highmark West Virginia headquarters at Seventh and Market streets and more.
“Even throughout all this ordeal we continued to do a lot of things,” he said, pointing to acceptance into the state’s expanded home rule program in December and the granting of a provisional local port designation by the state.
“I don’t want to be remembered for selfishly dragging the city through many more months” of conflict, Newell said. The mayor said he’s confident he would have been exonerated.
He referred to numerous Freedom of Information Act requests, many of which were made by Cornelius, in which people sought information about suspected financial wrongdoing.
“They’ve found nothing. And they will find nothing,” Newell said.
Cornelius laughed in response.
Among the orders the court issued Monday was a denial of Newell’s attorneys’ motion to exclude testimony and evidence related to adultery. Deitzler and Sims argued that adultery has been decriminalized in the state and sexual conduct between consenting adults is Constitutionally protected. The panel ruled that adultery was still grounds for removal from office, since that section of the code has not been changed.
Asked if he believed he would have been cleared on that basis, Newell – who has not publicly confirmed or denied the affair – said, “Who knows? That wasn’t what played into my decision.”
Shortly thereafter, Deitzler took the microphone from Newell and asked if any of the department heads present wanted to say anything.
Newell greeted Wood County Magistrate Joe Kuhl, a former Parkersburg Police detective who had just arrived, and left while the others were speaking.
Fire Chief Eric Taylor, Police Chief Joe Martin, Public Works Director Rick Lemley and Personnel Director Pam Salvage spoke positively about Newell.
“I’ve known mayors since Bill Nicely, and I think that Mayor Newell’s probably been the best mayor that the city’s had,” City Engineer Justin Smith said.
Also in attendance were citizens supporting the mayor, including city resident Georgiana Atkinson and the Rev. Mike Seely of First Presbyterian Church in Parkersburg.
Seely said he was there to support Newell, a fellow Rotarian, and was not concerned about any perception related to his occupation and the allegations against the mayor.
“We all have times in our lives when we make mistakes, but we try to do the best we can and move on,” he said.
Some of those speaking against Newell at recent City Council meetings live outside the city, something the mayor pointed out in a March executive message criticizing their tactics. On Wednesday, he had two supporters from beyond the city
limits, Becky Deem of Vienna and Sarah Townsend of Lubeck.
“People that live outside the city feel that how goes Parkersburg (so) goes Wood County,” Townsend said.
Deem, a Republican, said she was frustrated by Cornelius’ conduct during the press conference and in his efforts to have the mayor removed from office.
“I thought he was rude – inappropriate and rude,” she said. “Most of my friends are appalled at what’s going on.” Cornelius declined to comment on her remarks.
For more news from Parkersburg, subscribe to newsandsentinel.com