MORGANTOWN — In a replay of the 2021 election, Brian Butcher and Ben Mayle have stepped forward to represent Morgantown’s 7th Ward.
Butcher, the incumbent, defeated Mayle 804-608 to win a two-year term in what ended up being the tightest contest on the ballot.
During that same election, voters passed a referendum doubling the length of council terms, meaning the winner this time around will hold the seat through 2027.
Communication is king.
That, Butcher explained, was a primary lesson learned in his first two years on council and central to his push to return to the 7th Ward seat.
“Most things, honestly, come down to getting in a room and just having conversations with people,” he said.
“We have to work on it. I’m talking about communication between city administration and council, council and the public and the city and its different departments. It’s not something that’s ever going to be an ordinance or a piece of legislation. It has to be constantly worked on. It has to be the culture.”
Butcher, 34, said issues like the proposed changes to the Morgantown Utility Board, which he continues to work on, and the disputes-turned-lawsuits with the city’s first responders are examples of poor communication festering into public fights.
“I do feel like there were a number of times where I was able to actually help slow stuff down a little bit. You don’t really want to be the person who slows down city government. It can already be so slow, but I think there are times where we’re accustomed to a way of doing things and we already know exactly what we need to do and we kind of just say ‘We’re doing it.’ We’ve been there quite a few times,” he said. “But over the past two years we’re getting to a place where the city is more cognizant of making sure the community is involved and people know what’s going on.”
Butcher said he’s proud the city was able to hear the concerns of the community as well as its police force to reach common ground on the creation of the Morgantown Civilian Police Review and Advisory Board.
He also points to the October 2021 passage of a law banning the use of conversion therapy on minors in the city as a standout moment of his first term.
Going forward, Butcher said affordable housing has to be a city priority.
He explained that he’s working to marry up the missions of the Fairmont Morgantown Housing Authority and the Morgantown Land Reuse and Preservation Agency.
“The city needs low-income and workforce housing, but land cost is such a barrier for the FMHA. Right now you have a situation where the land reuse agency says give us a project and we’ll find the land and FMHA says we need the land to design the project,” he said.
Butcher explained that he’s fine-tuning potential legislation that would allow people living below the poverty line to petition the city to reduce fines for things like parking and moving violations.
He said he’d also like to bolster the city’s human rights commission, a group he’s working with to develop a racial equity strategic plan that would highlight short and long-term goals and identify strategies to address racial equality and help right historic wrongs, including those enacted through specific policies of the city.
Additional improvements to the Suncrest Minipark, or Turtle Park, and a continued push for a community center in the 7th Ward are also on Butcher’s agenda.
“I’d love to see a space that we could use as a community hub where people can meet. I think we should have a place like that in every ward,” he said.
Ultimately, Butcher said he feels the city is in a better place than it was when he took office.
“We’re moving in better directions across the board in a lot of ways and I think we have good momentum now in a lot of areas. I think there’s been better precedent set than two years ago.”
Mayle, 51, says the city is suffering the consequences of the bridges its burned with the state and its own first responders.
He wants to help fix that.
“When I talk to my neighbors, it’s all the same things — police and fire with adequate staffing, support and funding, roads, trash. We still have trash issues in my ward,” he said. “We need to refocus on our main municipal responsibilities, then focus on everything else beyond that.”
According to Mayle, priority one has to be rebuilding the relationship with the city’s police and fire departments, both of which have been at odds with city hall and both of which have filed lawsuits against the city and issued votes of no confidence in city leadership through their respective unions.
“People want to settle these lawsuits. They want this over. This is a black eye for our city, and the sooner we get to fixing this, the sooner the healing can begin,” Mayle said.
“When you look at the issues facing our police department, the lawsuits and reduced numbers, it’s about more than national sentiment. It’s also about specific actions the city has taken over time that have really made things worse.”
The knock-on effect of that fractured relationship, Mayle continued, are the issues facing the city’s downtown.
“If you can’t put an adequate police presence there, nothing else is going to work,” he said.
Mayle said he’d also like to help restore the relationship with the West Virginia Department of Highways, which he believes has been broken since Morgantown City Council attempted to ban heavy trucks from the city’s downtown in 2014.
A circuit court judge declared the ban invalid and unenforceable, a ruling ultimately upheld by the state’s supreme court.
“Everybody comes to Morgantown and this is what the roads look like and they say, ‘Why?’ It’s a black eye here and I personally believe it’s because of what happened before, and the lack of a relationship,” Mayle said. “We need to reach out to the state and say ‘We want to work on this.’ We need to get that communication line back open.”
Mayle said he believes there are also fundamental changes needed to the city’s election process, explaining the city needs to align its election with county, state and national elections to help reverse the trend of low voter turnout.
He said the city also needs to move to ward-specific voting, pointing out that voting precincts 2A and 2B dominate the city’s elections.
“They’re not doing anything wrong, but they have a higher number of voters who turn out and so they’ve ended up electing every single person for several elections now,” Mayle said.
“I’m proud of the fact that I won my ward by 50 votes last time. To me, that’s important. Whether it’s 50 people who vote or 500, you should be the voice of that ward. The 7th Ward council representative should be elected by the 7th Ward.”
Mayle said he’s not running as a part of a group or slate of candidates but he has spent time speaking with some of the other council hopefuls.
“We’re some people who want change and I definitely think we can make some progress in rectifying some of these things, healing and getting these relationships reestablished.”