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Helping to reform county government

March 16, 2012
Shepherdstown Chronicle

This year I sponsored a bill along with Delegate Barbara Fleischauer of Monongalia County (Morgantown) that would have given West Virginians more guaranteed options for changing the form of their local government.

It passed two committees in the House of Delegates and passed the full House with no problem. It passed one committee in the Senate but time ran out before the second committee could take it up. I'm sorry it did not pass the Senate, but it actually got farther than I thought it would.

Many bills get two committee references. The second committee cannot consider such a bill unless and until the first committee has approved it. I think this is a good system because it reduces the number of bills that are found to have technical flaws after they have been passed.

The state constitution says that the default county government structure is a three-member county commission with all three members serving six-year terms and elected "at large" (each member is elected by all of the people of a county). But the constitution goes on to say that the people of a county may "reform, alter or modify" their county government by replacing it with "another tribunal."

The constitution says nothing about what form this new tribunal might take.

Three steps are required to get "another tribunal." A specific change must be proposed to the Legislature, the Legislature must approve it and the people of the county in question must approve it at a referendum. A change may be proposed to the Legislature in either of two ways. The county commission may vote to propose it or a petition signed by at least 10 percent of the registered voters of a county may propose it.

Some people are under the mistaken impression that the constitution requires that county commissioners serve six-year terms and that they must be elected countywide (rather than be elected only by the people of the district in which they are required to reside). The constitution says no such thing, nor does any statute.

At times in the past other counties have had different types of county government than the three-member county commission elected at large for six-year terms. Jefferson County has had a five-member commission for over 100 years and Berkeley County increased its county commission from three members to five two years ago. For over 80 years Preston County had an eight-member county commission. The members of that body were each elected only by the people of the district in which they resided and served terms of only two years. About 35 years ago the Legislature actually ordered Taylor County to consider having its county commissioners elected by only the people of the district in which they resided. The people of the county declined.

Two years ago the Legislature established several "guidelines" for reforming county government. Four specific alternatives are listed. All require the members of the governing body to serve six-year terms and be elected at large. This is perhaps why some people think that nothing else is permissible.

Again, wrong. This is merely a list of forms given "pre-approval" by the Legislature. Anything else is permissible if it can get a majority of the Legislature to approve it and then get a majority of the voters in a countywide election to approve it.

The bill Delegate Fleischauer and I sponsored would have added a fifth form to the "pre-approved" list. This form would have called for a county commission with one member from each of a county's magisterial districts (each elected only by the people of that district) serving four-year terms.

Many Jefferson Countians seem to think that the county commissioner who lives in their district "represents" them. They are mistaken. An elected official "represents" the people who vote in the election. Since all five of Jefferson's county commissioners are elected at large, they all "represent" the entire county.

Quite a few folks who realize their commissioner does not actually "represent" them tell me they think he or she ought to do so. I think a petition calling for district-only elections of our county commission would easily get enough signatures to reach the threshold of 10 percent of registered voters required for it to be presented to the Legislature. Would it get a majority at a referendum? I'm not sure.

However, I am quite sure that a petition calling for four-year terms for our county commission would not only get well over the necessary 10 percent of voters to sign it but would also be approved by a majority of our county's voters at a referendum.



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