Facing criticism that he left environmentalists out of the loop and allowed an improper closed-door meeting, Gov. Cecil Underwood on Friday afternoon disbanded a group he formed to write mountaintop removal legislation.
The move came just hours after Underwood's press office released the names of the group's members and the panel held its first meeting.
Underwood Chief of Staff Jim Teets on Friday morning kicked a group of coalfield residents out of that meeting, telling them that the group would meet in private.
Former state Energy Commissioner Larry George said he was told by the governor's staff that the administration didn't want a legal fight over whether the committee's meetings would be open to the public.
In a prepared statement, Underwood, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, and House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, said they disbanded the group because The Charleston Gazette threatened to sue to open the meetings.
"Even though the group served in no official capacity and was never formally asked to do anything but draft a bill, The Charleston Gazette threatened to sue because its personnel were not invited to meet with the group," the release said. "Instead of wasting valuable time and resources defending such a lawsuit, the three leaders decided today to disband the group."
A Gazette reporter and editor called the governor's office to ask why meetings of the panel were not open to the public. The Gazette asked for the governor's office reasoning so the paper could consider whether to take any action.
James A. Haught, editor of the Gazette, said, "Clearly, this is an important public body, and the public should know what it's doing. We don't think that government actions on crucial public issues should be hidden in secret."
The state Open Governmental Proceedings Act says that meetings of "any public body having the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy or administration" must generally be open to the public.
"The state open meetings act in no way suggests that the meetings of such an informal bill-drafting group must be publicized or that reporters must be invited every time citizens and legislators talk about ideas for legislation," the joint gubernatorial-legislative leadership release said.
The release continued, "The governor, Senate president, and speaker of the House sought to assemble this group to review information from the Governor's Task Force on Mining Practices and draft a bill efficiently and effectively for consideration during this session.