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Statehouse Beat: Filling vacancies can be messy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Like gubernatorial succession, legislative vacancies occur infrequently enough that no one bothers to examine whether the process of selecting replacements is critically flawed.

However, with three (and now, four) legislative vacancies in a short period of time, it's clear that the system is in need of a major overhaul.

State Code provides only a couple of sentences of guidance: It says that, in the event of a legislative vacancy, the party executive committee for the particular legislative district is to meet and submit the names of three nominees to the governor within 15 days of the vacancy. Then, the governor has five days to appoint one of the nominees to the Legislature.

The only other guidance is that executive committees can meet only after public notice "is given according to party rules," that meetings must be open to the public, and "all official actions shall be made by voice vote."

State Democratic Party rules are equally non-specific, simply stating that public notice "shall be as reasonable as possible," and that no secret ballots are permitted.

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So as much as Mike Queen may complain, when the 12th Senatorial District executive committee met on one day's notice to select nominees to replace Sen. Joe Minard, D-Harrison, and when committeeman Martin Shaffer cast all three of his votes for County Commissioner Mike Romano, assuring Romano's nomination -- as unsavory as it may seem, no laws or party rules were broken.

Queen contends that Shaffer was banking on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin selecting Romano to avoid a controversy of having to chose between the two other nominees, Delegates Sam Cann and Tim Miley, both D-Harrison. (Shaffer then would have been the front-runner to fill the commission vacancy ... )

Of course, Queen had used that same logic in seeking the nomination himself -- along with the fact that as president of the Harrison County Board of Education, he had worked closely with Public Works LLC on the state public education audit, since Harrison was one of the three county school systems audited.

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There's an old statehouse saying that when the governor makes an appointment, he creates one friend and 10 enemies.

Which makes Tomblin's selection of Cann to succeed Minard as wise a choice as he could make under the circumstances. With 17 years' tenure, Cann is well liked and respected by other legislators. Had Tomblin appointed Miley, it would have thrown an already tumultuous House into even more chaos, having to replace a Judiciary Committee chairman just three weeks before the session begins. A Romano appointment, meanwhile, would have resulted in the above-mentioned controversy in Harrison County.

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While the 12th District appointment process was unsavory, it looks like child's play compared to selecting a successor for senator-turned-Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick.

Complicating matters is that the nominees must come from the old, pre-redistricting 15th Senatorial District, a district that stretched from Pocahontas to Berkeley County. With redistricting, the 15th has been broken up into three new districts: the 11th, 14th, and 15th -- with the new 15th being a Republican stronghold of Mineral, Hampshire, Morgan and the western portion of Berkeley County.

(How much of a stronghold? In the general election, the Democrats didn't even put up a candidate to run against former Delegate Craig Blair, R-Berkeley.)

Two of the three nominees selected Friday by the 15th Senatorial District executive committee would therefore have to run in different senatorial districts in 2014.

Circuit Judge Donald Cookman is from Hampshire County, which puts him in both the old and the new 15th District -- which also means he would have a very difficult time getting re-elected in 2014. 

Former Sen. Tom Hawse is from Hardy County, which is in the new 14th District. If he were appointed, Hawse would face Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, in the 2014 general election.

(While the appointee to fill Helmick's vacancy will technically be from the 15th District, if Tomblin were to appoint Hawse, that would effectively give the14th District three senators, while the new 11th District would be represented only by Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph.)

The third nominee, former Sen. and Delegate Mike Ross, has long resided in his estate at Coalton, Randolph County, but recently established his primary residency as Buckhannon in Upshur County. Both counties are in the new 11th District.

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Could history repeat itself? In 2009, Ross was a gold sponsor (the maximum $5,000 contribution allowable by law) for then-Gov. Joe Manchin's inauguration -- and about a week later, Manchin appointed him to the seat vacated by the late Delegate Bill Proudfoot.

This year, Ross was one of 67 $5,000 sponsors (and one of eight individuals) for Tomblin's inauguration.

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Finally, Queen's counterpart in the 15th District has been Margaret Kerr Beckwith, who lost to Barnes in the 2012 11th District Senate race.

Beckwith has contended that Barnes no longer lives in Beverly, Randolph County. (Barnes said the confusion is that he has sold two of three houses on the property, but maintains his place of residence there at what is known as Buzzard's Glory.)

Likewise, she contends that Ross' primary residence remains in Coalton, not in Buckhannon, where he has an office. That, of course, will be a matter for the courts to decide if Ross gets the appointment ...

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


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