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Statehouse Beat: Conservation district supervisor responds

A few follow-ups before I take a well-deserved break:

Heard from Bill Stewart, one of the conservation district supervisors who pulls down more than $10,000 a year in compensation and travel expenses.

Stewart suggested the supervisors who are turning in the most per-diem and expenses are the ones working the hardest.

“I am unaware of a maximum limitation on time spent, so long as you are performing duties for which you were elected,” he said. “I commend the other individuals who are listed in your report ... I also wish I had worked a little harder and beat Mr. Mullins, who topped your list.”

(Carl Mullins of McDowell County turned in $18,072 for pay and expenses in 2013, and $19,208 in 2012.)

Stewart said he is also one of the supervisors cited by Fred Hays who takes his wife to overnight conferences and meetings, but denied they are “mini-vacations,” as Hays suggested.

As for the whole Ethics issue regarding supervisors voting to award conservation grants for their own farmlands, Stewart confirmed that many supervisors oppose the compromise legislation, which will require applications from supervisors, their relatives or their business interests to be assigned to one of the 13 other Conservation District panels in the state for a vote.

“The bill as passed works against the districts, and most supervisors agree that it must be repealed as written,” Stewart said.

Many supervisors, it seems, want nothing short of their original goal: a blanket exemption from the Ethics Act’s prohibition on using public office for personal gain.

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Speaking of the Ethics Commission, common wisdom suggested the request for an advisory opinion on the propriety of sending letters to constituents at the Legislature’s expense had come from a Democrat hoping to get clarification that legislative franking is OK, thus defusing any Republican Party attacks on the matter.

With Commissioner Terry Walker’s slip of the lip Thursday, we now know it was from Delegate Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, a tea party Republican, who presumably filed it in collusion with the ethics complaints against selected Democrats for franking.

However, while both the old commission and newly configured commission have struggled for two months to cipher the point at which constituent letters cross a line into political advertising, they have generally concurred with the draft advisory opinion, which concludes the practice of legislative franking is itself not a violation of the Ethics Act.

Walker’s slip puts him about a dozen behind former commissioner Frank Deem, who had a propensity to frequently blurt out names of those seeking advisory opinions — which are supposed to be kept confidential.

Actually, that may well be one of the more violated provision of the Ethics Act, with some member slipping up about every third or fourth commission meeting. It’s not surprising it happens with relative frequency, given that the documents the commissioners are working with have the requesters’ names throughout.

Ironically, the person seemingly most upset that Householder’s name was revealed is the same person who runs to the media every time he files an Ethics complaint.

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As of Tuesday, the secretary of state’s website had been updated to include all candidates for the Nov. 4 general election, including four appointed Mountain Party candidates whose names had previously been omitted from candidate lists.

Mountain Party Chairwoman Charlotte Pritt, who alerted the secretary of state’s office to the omission, said she had asked the Elections Division to put out a press release verifying the Mountain Party candidates — Jesse Johnson, 17th Senate; Danny Ray Cook, 23rd House; Mark Myers, 11th House; and Karen White, 27th House — are on the ballot, but was told the next release regarding candidates will be after the Aug. 1 deadline for independent candidates to petition to be on the ballot.

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Finally, regarding plans to renovate the governor’s reception room, including removing a large mirror over the fireplace, General Services Director Greg Melton said he thought the mirror had been installed in the early to mid-1990s.

As best I can recall, the mirror was here when I got to the Statehouse. I particularly recall it as the bane of photographers and TV camera crews during Gov. Cecil Underwood’s tenure.

Unlike other governors, who staged press conferences and announcements on the west side of the reception room (allowing for a theatrical walk across the room from the governor’s office), Underwood held his conferences on the east side, under the mirror.

That Underwood, then in his mid- to late 70s, preferred not to walk the extra distance was probably one factor, but more so, his shyness precluded walking through the crowds of press conference attendees to reach the podium.

This was back in the day when cameras needed lights to get decent interior shots, and the mirror played havoc on getting usable shots without glare or the reflection of the press corps.

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


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