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Outgoing ethics director, Kirk, granted job exemption

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia ethics commissioners on Thursday approved an employment exemption for their outgoing executive director, Theresa Kirk, allowing her to seek a job in the private sector, and later met in executive session to discuss a transition plan for the agency. "This is what she wants to do at this stage in her career. I hate to lose her," commission chairman Kemp Morton said before the vote for Kirk's employment exemption.

Kirk, who has been executive director of the commission since February 2009, and was its legal counsel for more than five years before that appointment, said earlier this week that she feels it's time to make a change after more than nine years at the commission.

Commissioners did not take any action after the executive session. Kirk said she plans to stay on at the commission for 60 to 90 days to assist in the transition and to help commissioners prepare their legislative agenda for the 2013 regular session.

Additionally, the commission approved four other employment exemptions in order to allow four ranking state employees to obtain private-sector employment. They include Tax Commissioner Craig Griffith, Deputy Attorney General David Stuart, gubernatorial deputy chief of staff Erica Mani and Department of Environmental Protection attorney Joe Jenkins.

Also Thursday, the commission:

• Conditionally approved allowing a local health department to serve as a pass-through on a grant from a private foundation to a private nonprofit corporation that is promoting public-health issues.

The pass-though arrangement, believed to be with the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, was needed because the nonprofit has temporarily lost its tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3) organization.

The propriety of the pass-through arrangement prompted an extended discussion Thursday.

"Even if we find a legal loophole, I think we're creating an unethical thing here," Commissioner Douglas Sutton said.

"We're creating a standard, which we've never done, that the end justifies the means," added deputy counsel Marty Wright.

Others said the pass-through would not constitute an unethical use of public office for the private gain of another. They also concluded there would be no financial benefit to the local health department, although the program would benefit public health in the region.

Ultimately, the commission concluded that the pass-through would not violate state ethics law, but advised the health department to seek a separate legal opinion to determine if the arrangement violates any other state or federal laws.

• Approved draft legislation to be introduced next session. That includes proposed legislation to modernize West Virginia's Open Meetings Act.

Under the law, state agencies and other public bodies must publish notice of meetings at least five days prior to the meeting date.

The Secretary of State's Office maintains a meetings-notice page on its website that can be updated instantaneously, but the current law also requires that the meeting notice be published in the State Register, which is printed each Friday, but has a Wednesday publication deadline.

That means that, if an agency determines on a Thursday that it needs to hold a meeting the following Wednesday, it could comply with the five-day-notice requirement using the website.

However, under the existing requirement that the meeting notice also must be published in the State Register, that meeting would have to be postponed for a week.

Under the proposed change, publication on the secretary of state's website would be sufficient to comply with the public-notice requirement.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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