Multitudes of small local agencies -- mostly quasi-governmental, living on tax money or state fees -- are necessary for the smooth function of society in West Virginia. But they must be operated conscientiously and openly, fully accountable to the public.
Chesapeake's volunteer fire department is notorious as a long-running example of bad management. Year after year, its leaders refused to give state and county officers financial records needed for audits. State auditors once said Chairman Steve Johnson told them "what he earns is no one's business."
Kanawha Commissioner Dave Hardy grew alarmed when he learned that the VFD had grossed $4.2 million from bingo and raffles during a two-year period, and it also runs a car wash and radio business. Fire department leaders offered to give the County Commission financial records -- but only if the commission signed an agreement to keep them secret from the public. Commissioners refused.
Prosecutor Mark Plants is conducting a criminal investigation, but no conclusions have been reached.
This week, a state audit found that the Chesapeake VFD improperly mingled relatively small amounts of state and private money, and ordered it to repay $10,000. Hardy said it shows that "the department continues to embarrass the residents of Chesapeake."
Out of Kanawha's 27 VFDs -- staffed by noble volunteers who protect the public -- it's odd that the Chesapeake unit causes endless controversy.
Meanwhile, another local agency is drawing flak. For 20 years, Putnam Aging Program Inc. has held a state contract to serve food at Kanawha County's senior centers. Kanawha commissioners heard some customer complaints and began wondering why an out-of-county outfit has been serving Kanawha for so long without new state bids for the task.
Commission President Kent Carper wrote to the state Bureau of Senior Services, asking that the Kanawha contract be put up for bids. "They didn't even respond to me," Carper said. So Carper sent a Freedom of Information request demanding records.
By operating 20 years without competitive bidding, has the state bureau breached U.S. rules? Why shouldn't Kanawha food providers be allowed to bid for the job?
As we said, local agencies are vital -- but they must operate openly, with highest standards.