25 April 2009

Judge Rules for Ex-Lawmaker Mezzatesta

Former House Education Committee Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta has convinced a circuit judge to order his re-hiring as a "community specialist" for the Hampshire County school system, MetroNews reports.

The former Democratic legislative leader was fired in 2005 from his $60,000 job "because redirected $35,000 in state Department of Education money to volunteer fire departments in Hampshire County," the report said. Judge C. Reeves Taylor "ruled that there was not enough evidence to support Mezzatesta’s decision to redirect the money was a 'willful neglect of duty.'"

A lawyer for Mezzatesta says he "does plan to return to his job with the Hampshire County school system, but it’s not clear when," MetroNews reports. "The Hampshire County School Board can appeal the judge’s decision."

Update: Others with coverage include The Associated Press and The Charleston Gazette.

23 April 2009

Adding Topics to Manchin's Agenda

Since he announced a three-item special session agenda Monday, and said he may seek to add more failed session bills to his list, Gov. Joe Manchin has been offered several suggestions.

The state's Consolidated Public Retirement Board has asked the governor to revive a House-passed bill allowing it to run "the newly created Emergency Medical Services retirement plan," The Charleston Gazette reports.

The Senate let the bill idle "after the House amended in an expensive proposal to provide health insurance benefits to EMS workers who retire at age 50," the article said.

But one bill Manchin has sworn off would dedicate state funds to aid troubled municipal police and fire pension funds, both WSAZ-TV and the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington report.

"I can assure you the feeling of the Legislature is not to jump in there and take on any municipal pensions when we have a hard enough time running our state responsibilities and liabilities," Manchin is quotes as telling Huntington officials during a Wednesday visit there.

Mental Health Care in W.Va.

The Associated Press reports that "as behavioral health care providers wait for Gov. Joe Manchin's decision on a bill that could boost payments for their services, the state is looking to establish more than 100 new beds for patients at public and private psychiatric hospitals."

"State health officials say the effort is one component of its plan to provide care for West Virginians suffering from mental illnesses' AP's Tom Breen writes. "Mental health care advocates, though, say adding new beds ignores the underlying problem."

Manchin, meanwhile, told The Charleston Gazette on Wednesday that he hasn't decided whether to sign the bill boosting payments, "but one of the bill's sponsors says there is enough support in the Legislature to override a possible veto."

Manchin also told The Gazette that "he is concerned the bill could interfere with federal Medicaid guidelines," and "may not have been "vetted enough" because it didn't go through either chamber's Health and Human Resources committee. "

Behavioral health care centers continue to urge the governor to sign the bill, with recent coverage of that from the News and Sentinel of Parkersburg and (updated) Public Broadcasting (with audio).

In a related development, The Register-Herald of Beckley reports that "negotiations that began 18 months ago have produced a non-binding letter of intent to build a new, 100-bed facility on the campus of Beckley Appalachian Regional Hospital to treat the mentally ill."

22 April 2009

W.Va. Gets Royal Visit

Jordan's King Abdullah II included West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle in his recent visit to the U.S., the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

Before meeting Tuesday with President Obama, the monarch and his entourage rode motorcycles through Jefferson County over the weekend and stopped at a local restaurant for coffee and tea, the article said.

Quote of the Day

"Mainly what we’re concerned about as regulators is the ability to develop land after mining. You need valley fills if you’re going to have a viable post mining economy. You need flat land."

- Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman, while telling Public Broadcasting (with audio) that "he is frustrated by the Environmental Protection Agency stepping on his agency’s toes."

W.Va. workforce agency brushing up on ethics

The 400 or so employees of West Virginia's workforce development program must review and sign an "ethics code of conduct" amid a conflict-of-interest investigation targeting one of its administrators, The Charleston Gazette reports.

Workforce West Virginia tells the newspaper that the recent distribution of the Ethics Act Code of Conduct for Public Employees is a reminder "of current policies that have been in effect for some time."

But the agency also acknowledges that the directive, and planned ethics training, follows "investigations into whether agency administrator Mary Jane Bowling improperly helped steer federal grant money that was ultimately used by her son, convicted Cross Lanes computer executive Martin Bowling."

The Gazette has reported extensively on the prosecution of the younger Bowling and the ensuing scrutiny of his mother's actions at the agency.

W.Va. delegation reacts to Bayer blast hearing on Capitol Hill

Several of the state's members of Congress are weighing in after a U.S. House committee hearing, covered by The Associated Press and others, showed that "Bayer CropScience withheld information from emergency responders after a deadly explosion at a West Virginia chemical plant last summer."

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce fielded testimony Tuesday after a probe revealed that that the company 'engaged in a campaign of secrecy' following the blast at the Institute plant that killed two people," the article said.

But as committee investigators explain in their summary memo, the explosion "was particularly ominous and unnerving because a 'residue treater' weighing several thousand pounds rocketed 50 feet through the plant, twisting steel beams, severing pipes, and destroying virtually everything in its path."

That massive projectile "came close to compromising a tank holding methyl isocyanate, or MIC," AP reports. "The same chemical was responsible for the deaths of thousands in Bhopal, India, when it leaked from a former Union Carbide plant in 1984."

"Had this projectile struck the MIC tank, the consequences could have eclipsed the 1984 disaster in India," the committee report said.

U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, told Public Broadcasting that "she doesn’t support replacing MIC just yet."

(Update) The report had noted that Bayer’s actions "stand in stark contrast to other chemical companies that have already switched to safer technologies. In 1985, for example, directly after the MIC catastrophe in India, another chemical company, DuPont, altered its processes to eliminate the storage of large volumes of MIC."

"MIC is a critical ingredient to a lot that are made at that plant," Capito said. "I couldn’t say shut it down. I don’t know if that would mean shutting the entire plant down."

Audio here (corrected link). Capito also issued a statement after the hearing. "I applaud the committee for providing much-needed scrutiny in this case," it read in part. "We know that an incident like this can put the community at risk and it’s only appropriate to expect that manufacturers will be forthright in addressing these incidents quickly and transparently."

U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., released a statement as well. "I commend those first responders who tried desperately, and successfully, to protect their communities, with little assistance from Bayer," it read in part. "Unfortunately, the fears and suspicions of the community have been confirmed by today's hearing."

Others with coverage include The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews. The House committee site offers transcripts of the opening statements of its chairmen, the submitted testimony of Tuesday's witnesses, photos taken after the blast, other supplemental documents and audio of the hearing.

21 April 2009

W.Va. Upgrades Stimulus "Transparency" Web Site

West Virginia has launched a new Web site meant to help taxpayers keep tabs on the federal stimulus funds flowing into the state, The Associated Press and others report.

Recovery.wv.gov currently offers totals in the various stimulus categories, now estimated at around $1.8 billion over the next few year. It also has details on some of the areas, including planned highway projects.

"Among many other components, the site contains a search feature and allows individuals to view information by topic or by county," Gov. Joe Manchin's office said in a release. "Visitors will also be able to sign up to receive updates via email, RSS feeds or Twitter to stay apprised of all the latest developments. "

20 April 2009

Manchin Puts 3 Failed Bills on Special Session Agenda

Gov. Joe Manchin has asked state lawmakers to revisit three failed proposals addressing 3rd and 8th grade achievement, post-mining land use, and incentives for high-tech companies to locate in West Virginia, The Associated Press reports.

Manchin plans to convene a special session before, during or after the 10-day session for completing the budget set to begin May 26. He also said Monday that he may add more to his list later.

The first two items come from the governor's regular session agenda, which saw only half of its non-budget items pass during the 60 days. A bipartisan group of senators sponsored the third bill.

W.Va. Tea Party Follow-Up

The Associated Press' Tom Breen assesses the potential for last week's protests to "to convert that passion into the mostly unglamorous work of grassroots politics."

Mike Stuart, a former Republican legislative candidate and previous hopeful for state GOP chairman, has started the County Conservative Foundation and helped promote the tea party protest in Charleston. "Stuart is building a contact list along with tea party organizers of people committed to fiscal conservatism in government," the article said. "Stuart sees a network of thousands of people across West Virginia who can be spurred into action at short notice."

Nathaniel Harold "Thorney" Lieberman, a Republican who sought to represent then-presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani at last year's state GOP nominating convention, helped organize the Capitol protest. "Electoral changes are also on the mind of Lieberman, who said he was astonished last fall to see so many unopposed races," the article said. "Lieberman is meeting with organizers of other protests around the state to formulate a plan for what comes next."

If successful, "the tea party movement could represent a challenge to the state's established political culture," Breen writes. "While many of the speakers on Wednesday had harsh words for the Obama administration and Democrats, they are also disappointed with Republicans both nationally and in West Virginia."

Gary Abernathy, executive director of the state Republican Party, told Breen that "Republicans can do a better job at fielding candidates, but that the tea party movement will only succeed if it lends its energy to the GOP."

Five Thirty Eight, meanwhile, offers crowd estimates for West Virginia's events:

Charleston: 550
Martinsburg: 300
Parkersburg: 300
Wheeling: 2,000