Government officials have a difficult job, particularly in the era of COVID-19. Even matters which are only tangentially related to public health need consideration before decisions are made. In their best decisions, most public officials will still upset at least a third of their constituents. That’s the nature of politics in most places, let alone a nation with such a variety of views and opinions. With that stated, some of the decision making in Cabell County lately has been frustrating.
The Huntington City Council Drama
Let’s start with the July 22nd meeting of the Huntington City Council to fill a vacancy on the council. Some really fantastic local reporting by McKenna Horsley at the Herald-Dispatch details a strange incident where members of the council were actively being lobbied on which person they should select to replace outgoing Jennifer Wheeler.
House of Delegates member Daniel Linville (R-16) and Marshall University Board of Governors member Chris Miller both texted Huntington City Council Chairman Mike Shockley to inform him that Brad Smith (former Intuit CEO and major Marshall University benefactor) liked Jim Rorrer for that open seat on the council. Linville and Miller worked the texting lines to other members on the council, actively pushing for Rorrer.
Perhaps the most concerning text came from political strategist Michael Dillon (who apparently worked for Rorrer) to Shockley, stating, “Dude. Rorrer is the key for you to have your own slate of votes. What are you doing? … And backing of Miller and Brad smith for your future endeavors.” It doesn’t amount to anything illegal or a quid pro quo of some kind, but an implication is there that Shockley should pick Rorrer if to benefit his own political career.
Also intriguing is that Dale Anderson, another council member, stated he didn’t do much texting, but did communicate with Miller via Signal App, which allows users to send encrypted messages which permanently delete after a set time. He did not remember specifically what he and Miller discussed.
For his part, Brad Smith stated he had not supported anyone for the City Council’s vacancy, nor was he aware there was a vacancy. He also expressed disappointment that his name was being used to make any such implications.
Miller defended his lobbying of the members of the City Council, claiming he was tired of ‘sitting on the sidelines.’ While I can appreciate the notion of wanting to become engaged in politics and push for your preferred candidate to fill a vacancy, I think lobbying members of City Council during a meeting goes beyond jumping in the game. Moreover, name-dropping Brad Smith (who seems to want no part of this matter) to add pressure on multiple council members doesn’t seem very like a civic duty. It’s more along the lines of putting your finger in the scales. I also don’t understand Miller’s sentiment about ‘sitting on the sidelines,’ as if he has been doing that. To say he’s politically active is more than fair. He sits on Marshall University’s Board of Governors, which is a political appointment from the governor. He donates to numerous political candidates for many different races (including $1,500 to Linville and more than $30,000 in total to different candidates). His mother is a member of the United States House of Representatives. His Facebook post explaining his actions reads like a man who’s running for office himself.
Delegate Linville attempted to explain away his texts, noting, “Anytime that you’re making a … decision that you want to have the best information, you know, possible and available.” So, what’s the best information in this situation? Telling council members that Brad Smith wanted a particular person? Smith doesn’t seem to care. Linville further leaned into that explanation, stating, “… if Mr. [Brad] Smith, you know, made a recommendation to me of someone for something … I would take that quite seriously and do my own due diligence, but I would take that quite seriously because, you know, he clearly has an eye for talent.”
Why do these council members care about Brad Smith’s not real recommendation? Why are Linville, Miller, and Dillon pushing the issue? It’s pretty clear Dillon, as a political strategist, believed it could help his client. Linville and Miller? I don’t know. Did they think Smith would somehow be pleased with them? Would he donate to their future political endeavors? Would he donate to the city? More money to Marshall University? Did they simply want to influence who sat on the City Council?
Cabell County Schools and masks
Let’s fast forward to an August 19th meeting of the Cabell County Board of Education. The administration for the Board started the year with a policy of masks being recommended, but not required. Initially, this policy was well received and seen as somewhat of a relief. However, the increasing number of positive COVID cases in Cabell County and appeals from medical professionals prompted an emergency meeting of the Board to reconsider the matter.
During the meeting, dozens of local citizens and health care professionals spoke about their feelings regarding a potential change to the mask-optional policy. The five members of the Board had a difficult decision to make. Health care professionals implored the Board to mandate masks for students and all employees. The parents at the meeting mostly advocated for the mask only policy. I don’t think I would have faulted the Board for their decision either way, but my complaint is more about the process of the decision making.
Interestingly, Delegate John Mandt (R-16) showed up as one of the ‘delegations to be heard.’ Why was he at the meeting? I suppose he took on the mantra of a politician never letting a crisis go to waste. He took a few moments to speak his mind how he believed mask mandates were unconstitutional, pandering to a swath of his voting base.
If you were not aware, Mandt is leaving the House of Delegates and running for Cabell County Commissioner. (My theory on this move is that Mandt might have some insider information on redistricting in the Cabell County area and realize he might end up in a district against some very popular candidates. Maybe time for him to try to make a move to a more winnable election.) Most of the people attending the August 19th meeting were part of Mandt’s tribe. Not a bad way to score some votes.
After an hour of listening to the various delegations, the five Board members had to consider if they would change their decision. Before they cast a vote, each Board member had an opportunity to make a statement. This was the moment where the meeting went off the rails.
When Board member Alyssa Bond spoke, she read a prepared statement, coming down on the side of mask-optional policy. But, regardless of what side she landed on, a prepared statement says she already made up her mind coming into this meeting and the entire delegation of parents, health care professionals, and other speakers was pro forma, window dressing for the public.
She was followed up by Skip Parsons, who also voted for the mask-optional policy. This came to thunderous applause from the audience, particularly as he yelled “Freedom! I am for freedom!” Again, I’m not faulting the vote, but I look at this type of action and I see someone influenced by the audience.
Bond and Parsons were joined by Board President Mary Neely, who constituted the three person majority necessary to continue a mask-optional policy for the school year. Perhaps I’m wrong about the Board and the decision making process, but as fate would have it, we’re going to have an opportunity to see how that decision making process will play out this week.
Due to the increased COVID-19 infections in Cabell County Schools, along with the number of students who must quarantine as a result of being in proximity to students who tested positive. As a result, the Cabell County Board of Education’s agenda for this Thursday (September 2nd) includes a piece about reconsideration of the mask policy.
Rhonda Smalley and the Reverend Chris Shaw were the two votes for a mask mandate and they are unlikely to change that position. It will be more than interesting to see if any of the three in the majority cracks under the pressure from the health care community. What might also be interesting to Cabell County citizens is the fact that the school system has a doctor on staff as the chief medical officer, who recommended a mask mandate. Why are we even paying a six figure salary to a doctor if we don’t have any real intention of listening to this person?
I truly don’t know if any of the three members in the majority will have it in them to swallow their pride and change their vote on a mask mandate just two weeks into the school year. A change this quickly would definitely inflame the opinions of a number of citizens, and these folks are likely to turn out again for the meeting Thursday night. That would be an exercise in leadership, without question.
The Huntington divide continues …
A few months ago, I wrote about the strange shakeup of administrators at Marshall University and the odd timing of it all. Part of my contention then was that there’s a clash of ideologies between the outgoing Dr. Jerry Gilbert and the Marshall Board of Governors. But I want to tweak that thought.
I believe that Huntington, and Cabell County as a whole is in the midst of an identity crisis. Who are we and what do we believe? Historically, this is a county like many others in West Virginia. The older generations of this area are white, conservative, and want to preserve the status quo. But, Huntington is a college town, and it has a younger vibe, a more liberal persona that wants to influence what the city and county are like in the future. If you live in Huntington, you can feel the influence of the university already. The real question now is if the liberal vibe will extend to the rest of the county. It would appear that the conservative camp is equally determined to make its presence felt. We are seeing this war for Cabell County transpire in some poor leadership decisions from our most important public institutions and it’s not healthy for any of us.
Regardless of a person’s political leanings, or their feelings on masks, we should all strive for leadership at every level who makes good choices based on what is the right thing to do for the community. We don’t want individuals on Huntington City Council or the Board of Education who are thinking about their political future or not considering the needs and wants of their constituents. Public officials have a difficult task in front of them and the people entrusted them to do a job. Please do that job and not be swayed by big names or the fear of losing a future election because you made an unpopular choice.