Commission files ethics complaint against Sheriff
Pocahontas County Commissioners voted unanimously at its November 20 meeting to file a complaint against county Sheriff David Jonese with the West Virginia Ethics Commission.
Commissioners said they were troubled by the online posting of apparent security video footage from the county jail building. The footage appeared on the Jonese for Sheriff Facebook account, prior to the general election.
Commissioners had expected Jonese to be present for Tuesday's meeting, but they were informed before the meeting that the sheriff was unavailable, due to an emergency.
The brief video, which was removed from the Facebook page shortly after it was brought to the commissioners' attention on November 8, appeared to show Prosecuting Attorney Donna Meadows Price speaking with two Sheriff's Department employees at a counter in the jail. As they talked, Jonese appeared to come through a door behind the counter, and—seeing Price—quickly turned the other way, closing the door behind him. After the door was closed, Price raised her hand and extended her middle finger in the Sheriff's direction.
At the commission's November 8 meeting, Jonese contended there was nothing improper about the footage being posted to his re-election campaign's social media page. Jonese refused to say who was authorized to post the footage or how it got there.
Last Tuesday, the commissioners said they were concerned the posting of the video had undermined public trust in courthouse security procedures.
The county offices have two separate camera systems, Pocahontas County 911 and Emergency Management Director Shawn Dunbrack explained to the commissioners. One system monitors the courthouse, with access to that system shared between the Sheriff's tax office and Dunbrack's office in the county 911 dispatch center.
"The camera system at the jail, which this video in question came from, is controlled strictly by the Sheriff's Department," said Dunbrack. "There's no other access to that, that I am aware of—at least by my department—anywhere else in this building."
In particular, Saffer said he was concerned for the safety of children who come to the courthouse as subjects of juvenile court cases, as well as abuse and neglect hearings.
"Their rights are strictly protected," noted Saffer. "Their names are withheld. Their identifications are withheld. The proceedings are strictly closed. Yet, there are cameras upstairs, in the hallways where these children access and exit from the courtroom with their parents, with their attorneys."
"This is intolerable, to think that access to this kind of information would be just spread out to, literally, the world on the Internet," Saffer continued.
"I'm on record as saying that we need good courthouse security," added commission president David Fleming. "I thought that having a metal detector at appropriate places would be a good idea. Mr. Saffer is right, in that these security cameras—the security infrastructure—requires that we are able to trust the process is secure—is private."
"If we're not able to guarantee that, then we have no business with a security system," Fleming continued. "The cameras would have to go, in my opinion, if we cannot maintain trust of the process."
Commissioner Jamie Walker said he had heard from several county residents who were unhappy with the posting of the apparent security footage. The commission should take quick action to address the matter, Walker said, particularly if the camera used was county-owned and paid for with taxpayer dollars.
Reading from his correspondence with West Virginia Ethics Commission Executive Director Theresa Kirk, Fleming noted that the Ethics Act may come into play if either 1) the footage was confidential in nature or 2) if the footage was copied or exported by a public employee or official—or as a favor to a public employee or official—when this same access would not have been afforded to a citizen.
Saffer noted there was also the political nature in which the footage was used.
"I think, Ms. Kirk, when she mentions these two issues, omits a further issue." said Saffer, "That is the use of public property—which was funded by tax dollars—for electioneering purposes and tangential financial gain."
"I'm not condoning unprofessional behavior expressed on camera," Fleming noted. "The issue here is one of law. A gesture expressed on camera—to my knowledge—isn't a violation of the law. What could be a violation—and what I'm concerned about—is the improper use of the camera footage."
Jonese did not return requests for additional comment by phone or e-mail.
Commission declines to pay Prosecutor's legal fees
The commission declined to pay a $19,000 legal bill for Price, who is defending herself against charges from the West Virginia Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
Price said she was unaware of the bill from Ranson being addressed directly to the commission, adding that, as of July, the firm no longer represented her.
At the commission's request, Commission Clerk Sue Helton had filed a claim with the county's insurance provider, American International Group.
Fleming read a portion of the insurer's response.
"We have reviewed this matter and we are of the opinion that the above-referenced policy will not provide coverage for this matter," read Fleming. "This claim arises from a complaint filed with an administrative body."
Walker stipulated that the commission should only pay the bill if Price is cleared of the charges.
Assistant Prosecutor Ted White said the commission's wait-and-see approach was unfair to Price.
"The reason you hire a lawyer is to affect the outcome," said White. "If she's walking in there with no lawyer—and no money—and the other side is just loaded to the gills... by doing nothing, you're doing something. You're back-stabbing your own prosecutor."
The commission voted 3-0 to inform Ranson Law Office that the commission will not pay the bill and that it will not be covered under the county's liability policy.
In an unrelated matter, the commission also refused a request from Beaver Creek resident Norman Alderman relating to ambulance and hospital bills stemming from his September 5 arrest on an alleged traffic violation.
Pocahontas County Deputy Chris Cole arrested Alderman in downtown Marlinton in connection with a May 22 speeding ticket. During the September arrest, Alderman fell as he was being loaded into the deputy's SUV. He was subsequently transported by ambulance to Pocahontas Memorial Hospital, where he was treated and released later that afternoon.
Alderman said he recently received a bill from the hospital for $5,000, which he wanted the county to pay.
Fleming and Saffer said it would be improper for the commission to the pay the bill out of hand.
"We can't pay the bill until liability has been assessed in a court of law," said Saffer.
National Forest matters
From courthouse affairs, the commission's attention turned to the Monongahela National Forest, ATV use and the potential designation of a National Monument.
At the commission's November 8 meeting, Doug Cooper, representing the West Virginia Open Trails Association, and John Simmons asked the commission to approve a resolution in support of all-terrain vehicle use on existing, open roads on the national forest.
The two noted that the Monongahela is the only national forest where ATVs are prohibited. The prohibition hinges on one word: licensed. Current forest rules only permit "licensed motor vehicles" on open forest roads. In West Virginia, ATVs are not licensed, however, the vehicles are permitted to be driven on state roads that do not have a center line.
Particularly in the upper end of Pocahontas County, Simmons noted, the distinction where state-owned pavement ends and U.S. Forest Service pavement begins isn't always immediately clear.
"Start in Durbin, actually in Frank, and go across Burner Mountain—now that's right smack in the heart of the Monongahela National Forest," said Simmons. "However, that's a state road. Go on back through and pick up another road back there that goes all the way through clear to [U.S.] Route 33, east of Elkins. It's about 58 miles through there, and that's a state road that goes right through the heart of the Monongahela National Forest."
"It's the whole idea of getting out and enjoying the outdoors and being able to ride ATVs," Simmons added.
"Really, what we're after is just a simple resolution to move to the next level," said Simmons.
Randolph and Webster counties have approved resolutions in support of the USFS opening its roads to ATVs.
Forest Service officials have said they want to see broader support for the idea of opening USFS roads to ATVs before the agency considers doing so.
Fleming re-drafted the resolution Cooper presented at the commission's November 8 meeting. In his new draft, Fleming acknowledged the pros and cons of granting ATV access on the MNF and the desire to include a variety of forest stakeholders in the decision.
The resolution was approved in a 2-1 vote, with Saffer opposing. Saffer said he felt the resolution was premature and contradicted itself in its assessment of the benefits and consequences of ATV use on the forest.
Following the ATV discussion, the commission was then asked, by Randy Sharp, of Jerico Road, to rescind its resolution in support of creating the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument.
With proposed boundaries in the vicinity of the Cranbery Backcountry, the proposal from the West Virginia Wilderness coalition and other conservation-minded groups has gained support from Trout Unlimited, the West Virginia Mountain Bikers Association, Hillsboro Library Friends, the Shavers Fork Coalition, Snowshoe Mountain Resort, Pocahontas County Free Libraries, Mountain Valley Properties, Christians for the Mountains and 8 Rivers Council, according to the Wilderness Coaltion coordinator Mike Costello.
Proponents of the monument say it would be the first of its kind in Appalachia and would bring more visitors, more jobs and better marketability for the area.
While the monument would have to be designated by the U.S. Congress or the President, Costello said he is attempting to organize some public input sessions that would help to define what the monument would encompass and the activities permitted there.
Sharp—and Walker—voiced concern that firearms and hunting would be prohibited within the national monument and that permit fees might be imposed on visitors.
Fleming and Costello noted that the commission's resolution stipulated that traditional activities in the area, such as hunting and trapping should continue and that access should remain free.
Costello invited Sharp to come and share his concerns when public input meetings are scheduled, to be sure his perspective and that of his fellow hunters would be represented in the proposal.
"I think we have a unique opportunity here, to come together as a community, and say what it is we do want," said Hillsboro restaurant owner Blair Campbell.
"There's no other place in the state that you could talk about making this happen," noted Campbell.
Walker said he didn't see an immediate threat to the area or a need to afford it further, special protection.
Aside from any protection aspect, Fleming said one of the larger reasons for his support of the proposal is the potential for increased tourism, business growth, and revenue for the county
Fleming said he was unwilling to rescind the commission's June resolution in support of the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument.
"I think it's a good resolution," said Fleming. "It supports a full stakeholder process. It lays out many conditions. I stand by those conditions. I think it serves as a great endorsement of talking about this further to see if this can be done, or not."
Walker moved to rescind the motion, saying he had too many unanswered questions about the national monument proposal.
"I do not know where the boundaries is, I don't know what the restrictions is on it, and I don't know what our gain is going to be from it," said Walker. "When them questions are answered, they're wrote down, and they're in black-and-white, and we can all three look at them and agree upon them, I may be in support of it at that point."
Walker's motion died for lack of a second.
In other matters, the commission certified the results of the November 6 general election and directed Helton to seek estimates on shutters for the courtroom.
The commission's next regular meeting is scheduled for 8:30 a.m., December 4, in the commission chamber of the Pocahontas County Courthouse.