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Bill would change ethics commission

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An amendment adopted by the Senate Thursday would greatly change the composition of the state Ethics Commission, shrinking it from 12 to seven members, and changing requirements for members -- including mandating that one member be a former lobbyist.

The changes are in a Government Organization Committee amendment adopted on the Senate floor Thursday, drastically changing a bill originally intended to simplify gubernatorial appointments to the commission (HB4298).

"The current Code on the Ethics Commission is complicated," Government Organization Chairman Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, said of the amendment. "The executive has been having a tough time finding people that meet all the qualifications."

Snyder, meanwhile, was one of three sponsors of a bill to exempt county conservation district supervisors from the Ethic Act's prohibition on public officials having private interests in public contracts (SB365) -- a bill the Ethics Commission in February authorized executive director Joan Parker to actively oppose this session.

The House Rules Committee on Wednesday moved that bill to the inactive calendar, effectively killing it.

Parker said Thursday she could not comment on whether her lobbying against SB365 had anything to do with the Senate amendment to HB4298.

"The prohibition in the Ethics Act is there for a reason," she said, adding that while the act prohibits public officials from having private interests in public contracts, it allows the commission to make exceptions in cases of hardship, which it has done before for county conservation district supervisors.

She said the Ethics Commission membership bill in its original form had been supported by the commission, and by the Tomblin administration, to address current difficulties in finding people who meet all qualifications to serve on the commission.

Under current law, filling vacancies on the commission can get complicated since the law specifies that eight members must be former legislators, former state officials, former county or municipal officials, or have served on public boards or public service districts, with four members at large. Additionally, no more than four members can be from the same Congressional district, and no more than seven can be from the same political party.

As the bill came from the House, it reduced the number of commissioners with backgrounds in public office from eight to four, and doubled the number of at-large members.

However, the Senate amendment would drastically change the makeup of the commission, creating a seven-member panel, made up of a former legislator, a former county official, a former municipal official, a former school board member, a member who was formerly employed as a registered lobbyist, a member "representing the agriculture community," and a citizen member.

Snyder said Thursday he wanted to further simplify appointments on the commission, and said he is willing to negotiate with the House to come up with a final number of commissioners under the bill.

The bill will be on passage stage in the Senate today<co Friday>, and then will go back to the House for further action.

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


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