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WSAZ Investigates | Missed meetings and million-dollar votes

Published: Dec. 2, 2021 at 6:39 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - More than $100 million of taxpayer money is spent by Charleston City Council every year, with 26 representatives deciding how that money should be used.

City Council meetings take place on the first and third Monday night of every month, and important votes and discussions are held at each meeting. During the past couple of months, multiple members have raised concerns during the meetings about attendance problems that are slowing down the passage of ordinances and resolutions.

A new select committee has even been created to study the role of City Council and make recommendations to improve its function, including the possibility of reducing the size of council and creating new attendance policies.

Section 86 of the city’s charter currently states, “It shall be the duty of all councilmen to attend all of its meetings, and if any councilman shall be absent from the meetings of council as shown by its records for three consecutive meetings, then his office shall ipso facto become vacant, unless the council shall authorize or excuse such absence.” City Attorney Kevin Baker told WSAZ this section of the city charter is currently superseded by Section 6-6-7 of West Virginia State Code which establishes how a public officer can be removed from their position.

Since 2019, three city council members could have been removed from their positions for missing three consecutive meetings. However, WSAZ found the city has no way to determine if an absence is excused, and state law prevents an elected official from automatically being removed from office.

City Council President Becky Ceperley said the city has never defined what counts as an excused absence or how someone would notify the city that they were going to miss a meeting. Ceperley said members often call her, the Mayor’s Office, the City Clerk or announce it on the floor.

“We have never really had a process to implement that part of the code because I think we have discovered it would take a vote of council to (remove someone), so it is not like they just automatically go away, or they show up one day and we tell them you can’t sit down,” City Council President Becky Ceperley said. “But yeah, we will work on that one.”

Ceperley said she was unaware that multiple members had missed three consecutive meetings in recent years until WSAZ told her during an interview.

“I think they miss for some reason that is valid,” Ceperley said. “I don’t think they say, ‘I got elected and now I am just not going to show up.’ I don’t think that is true. I believe every member of this council is committed to their constituents, to serving them well, to being here when they can.”

City Council would only bring up a vote to remove a member if they never showed up for any meetings, Ceperley said. She believes excused absences should include being sick or having to care for a family member during the meeting.

WSAZ searched through City Council records and found member Shannon Snodgrass missed three consecutive meetings in June and July 2021 because she was out of town with a sick family member. Member Jeanine Faegre missed three consecutive meetings in September and October 2019, and member Brent Burton violated the rules two separate times in 2019 because he was out of town on business.

“I mean, none of us want to miss council meetings,” Burton said. “We were fortunately elected to be in this position. You want to be at every meeting possible that you can, but unfortunately sometimes issues will come up and I will have to miss a meeting. I certainly try everything I can to never miss.”

Burton said he does not support reducing the size of City Council due to these attendance issues, but he does believe it would be helpful to allow members to participate virtually through video call software, similar to what was done for many meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. WSAZ did not find any council members that had three consecutive meeting absences during 2020.

A Zoom attendance option could accommodate for members who are still able to work everyday helping their constituents one-on-one, but might have a situation that prevents them from being able to attend every meeting in-person, Burton said.

“I care about taking care of the people in my ward and the greater Charleston on topics and issues,” Burton said. “I think everybody on this council, everybody tries their hardest to be here and attend meetings, and give their input, and see what their constituents want here from the city.”

City Council member Jennifer Pharr is an at-large member, and said she if often contacted by Charleston residents who are not able to get in contact with or get help from their ward representatives. That’s part of the reason behind her proposal to reduce the size of City Council from 26 members to as few as 12, which was discussed during the November redistricting process and will now be considered by the new select committee.

“If we’re not present, we can’t discuss it,” Pharr said. “We are not representing our wards. We are not representing those that have voted us in, that have elected us to do the service that we are to do.”

Charleston residents want to see more done to improve the city, and said having committed council members can make a big difference in neighborhoods.

“Drugs, homelessness are probably two of the biggest ones,” east end resident Bob Porter said about issues that the city needs to address.

“They do need to be there,” Porter continued. “If they don’t want to be city councilmen, then I guess we will vote them out.”

Ceperley said they would be willing to do just that, but only if a member is not doing any part of their job and after they are given a chance to make improvements. If they can no longer attend meetings or do their job, she would encourage them to resign.

“We would check on why and try to figure out what their absences were for, because again it’s not just not being here, it’s an unexcused absence,” Ceperley said. “I know sometimes people have surgery, and for example knee surgery, one of our members had knee surgery and couldn’t be here for several, like two months, so that would be like four meetings or whatever. And that’s a legitimate excuse. That would be an excused absence. Now, if they just said, ‘well I just wanted to watch a ballgame’ or whatever, then we would worry about that.”

Ceperley said she is working with the Mayor’s Office and City Clerk to create a uniform process that can be followed any time a council member has to be absent from a meeting. That would then be used to verify if the member has an excused absence or if there is an issue.

There is currently no timeline on when the new rules would be voted on by council and implemented, Ceperley said.

WSAZ reached out to all Charleston City Council members named in this story and representatives for Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin.

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