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Committee kills three bills aimed at counties and cities

MORGANTOWN — Legislators took up four bills affecting counties and cities Thursday afternoon and killed three of them.

Members of the House Political Subdivisions Committee agreed that the three that bit the dust had good intentions but probably inadvertently caused more problems than they solved. The bills would have expanded the number of county magisterial districts, allowed cities to cancel certain elections and banned certain concerts.

The one that survived explicitly allows counties to do something they already can and specifies the money for them to do it.

Magisterial districts

Under current law, counties may have anywhere from three to 10 magisterial districts. The number is up to the county commission.

Committee counsel Brian Casto and Jonathan Adler, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Counties, told members that most of the functions the districts were created for no longer apply, but they are used to elect county commission and school board members.

HB 2019 proposed to raise the minimum number of districts from three to four. Bill sponsor Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, said the bill wouldn’t increase the number of commissioners in each county but would allow more people to be able to run for office.

While commissioners represent the whole county, he said, they run based on their district, so each year only one-third of the county’s residents have the opportunity to run. By expanding the number to four, each year half the residents would have a shot. It would have a lesser impact on school board elections, where no more than two members may be form the same district, but it could have an impact.

“It’s a sizeable empowerment to the people,” he said.

Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, asked Cowles why he wouldn’t simply sponsor a bill to end districts altogether. Cowles sparked laughs around the room by saying, “That’s not a terrible idea.”

Cowles said he’d thought of it but chose this route.

Doyle also felt uncomfortable with creating a mandate when counties already have the option. “Why would we want to tell a county how to run this?”

Cowles said a seated commission might hesitate to initiate a reform that could jeopardize their incumbency by broadening the candidate pool. The imposition would be worth the benefit.

Along with objecting to the mandate, members raised questions about the costs to the counties to redistrict and whether any counties wanted this to happen. Adler said he hadn’t polled the counties to get their views and the association wasn’t taking a stance at this time.

Cowles noted that statewide redistricting is on the horizon following this year’s census, so this would be a good time to enact the bill, and costs should be minimal. That wasn’t sufficient to persuade the majority.

A voice vote on the bill was unclear and it failed in a subsequent show of hands.

Canceling elections

HB 2309 deals with municipal elections. It says that at the close of the candidate filing period, of only one person has filed for each open office, council could cancel the election and deem all the candidates chosen by acclaim. This would save money on unnecessary elections.

Members raised a couple problems with it. Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, learned from counsel that some municipalities have partisan elections. Fast said the bill would bar political parties from nominating candidates in instances where no one from the party filed during the filing period.

Other members observed that it could bar candidates who choose to get on the ballot after the filing period by gathering signatures.

Fast moved to table the bill and his motion succeeded in a voice vote.

Banning concerts

HB 4034 proposed to order counties to ban any concert based in an outdoor amphitheater that occurred after 11 p.m. if the amphitheater is within 500 feet of a residence.

Bill sponsor Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, also represents part of Summers County and said the bill arose form a specific problem in Summers, where neighbors of the amphitheater attempted to have the county ban late-night concerts but the commission said it could do nothing.

Members worried, once again, about a statewide mandate and attempted a couple amendments to tailor the bill to the Summers problem. But the amendments had noticeable flaws, too, and failed.

Delegate Linda Longstreth, D-Marion, said, “We are definitely overstepping our bounds and our authority.”

Fast suggested that the problem would be better addressed through the court system than in state code. “What Delegate Pack’s constituents need is a good lawyer.”

They have a right to file a public nuisance suti, he said, to seek abatement and possible damages. That would be preferable to legislative micromanaging.

The bill contained a second reference to Judiciary and some members, including Fast, suggested passing it to allow Judiciary to try fix it, but that didn’t fly. HB 4034 also died.

Mobile emergency lines

The only survivor of the afternoon’s deliberations was HB 2542, which members found a bit hard to decipher but approved once they understood it.

The bill allows the director of a county or municipal enhanced phone system to contract with mobile service providers for emergency phone lines for the county or municipality. “The director may obtain as many lines as reasonably needed for emergencies where landlines are unavailable to serve the county or municipality.”

The bill specifies that 911 fees that the providers collect and submit t the Public Service Commission would be used to pay for the lines.

Delegate Buck Jennings, R-Preston, in conversation with Adler, determined that the emergency lines would be used by emergency responders to communicate with each other.

Members learned that counties and municipalities may do this now, because it’s not expressly forbidden in code, but it’s also not expressly allowed so the practice could face a court challenge. This bill makes the power clear and specifies the funding source.

Members also learned that this bill would create the only situation statewide where a city or county employee would be empowered in code to bid out, negotiate and enter into contracts.

That revelation didn’t deter them though, and they approved the bill. It goes next to Government Organization for further review and possible revision.

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