Secretary of State says it can’t weigh-in on Morgantown’s controversy over ward boundaries

The Secretary of State’s Office has no authority to be involved in the complaint over the current status of Morgantown’s wards and voting boundaries, according to a letter from that office dated Thursday.

“The relevant sections of West Virginia Code concerning the amendment of municipal ward boundaries places that burden squarely on the local governing body,” the letter from Deputy Secretary of State and Chief Legal Counsel Stephen R. Connolly reads. “In this instance, Morgantown established by ordinance 7.05 the ‘Ward and Boundaries Commission’ — of which you are a member. The Ordinance enumerates an orderly process to modify ward boundaries.”

The letter continues: “If you feel that the procedures of this Ordinance were not followed, or that the outcome of the process operates to the unlawful disenfranchisement of voters, you may wish to seek advice and counsel from an attorney to commence an action in the Circuit Court of Monongalia County to challenge the ward boundaries.”

Roger Banks, serving his third term with Morgantown’s Wards and Boundaries Commission, filed a complaint Tuesday over what he described as “gross inequities” in the current system that went unaddressed by both the commission and Morgantown City Council.

“This inaction is a specific violation of Section 7.05 of the Charter,” he said. “When we realized that there were inequities and we chose not to make those actions, that in and of itself was the violation. And now council knowing that those inequities are there and choosing not to take action, that’s negligence.”

Banks named the entirety of city council in his complaint.

“When we did the original analysis in the report for this cycle, we learned of the inequities with the census data,” Banks said Thursday on WAJR’s Morgantown AM. “Each ward is out of deviation — acceptable deviation — by three or four times.”

The 2010 census numbers indicate the wards are significantly outside of the standard deviation — each ward is supposed to be within 10 percent of each other — and Banks said this is a long standing issue that has continuously gone unaddressed.

“No ward can be greater or less than 10 percent of another ward,” he said. “Most of our wards, under census data, are 30 or 40 percent deviation from each other.”

Though the deviation is less stark when adjusted for only registered voters, two wards remain outside of what Banks described as the standard practice of 10 percent deviation.

“When you don’t have these changes occurring for so many years, the disparities become greater and greater and greater,” Banks said. “In my six years of being on this commission, it’s been very frustrating to see the lack of actions taken to correct what could have been corrected some time ago.”

The city released a statement through its public affairs officer Thursday morning:

“These claims do not apply to the city’s ward boundaries because the city holds non-partisan, at-large elections in which each resident is permitted to vote for all candidates. This has been explained repeatedly by former City Attorney Stephen Fanok and former Monongalia County Prosecuting Attorney Marcia Ashdown. Complaints about this issue have been raised previously to the Secretary of State’s office and the West Virginia Ethics Commission and the complaints have shown to have no merit.”

Banks said without some level of voter equalization, certain wards become either over- or under-represented. He said ward representation remains an issue due to the disparity in the numbers.

There are three wards with more than 6,000 residents and four wards with fewer than 3,000 residents, according to census data.

The Wards and Boundaries Commission recommended no changes in a 4-1 vote, with Banks as the dissenting vote. The other members thought there wasn’t enough time to implement changes.

Banks believes there is still time.

Morgantown’s next municipal election will be in April 2019.

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