By Peggy Mackenzie
About an hour and a half before the Tuesday night county commission meeting, a dozen or so self-named “Citizens for a Fair Investigation” assembled in front of the courthouse, accompanied by dogs and children, posters and balloons. As TV cameras rolled, the cry went up, “Paws up, don’t shoot!”
By calling in the media and holding a rally at the courthouse, the protesters were seeking to raise awareness of the circumstances surrounding the May shooting of a dog by county animal control officer Robert McClung. They also disputed the results of the investigation by the commission-appointed, three-person “blue ribbon” panel, calling instead for some form of a reprimand or punishment “so that justice might finally be served.”
During the commission meeting, two members of the protest group, Linda Montgomery and Valerie Renee, spoke before the commission and offered opinions that public safety is still at risk as long as McClung remains the county’s ACO.
“We are not safe and our animals are not safe,” said Renee.
Montgomery was particularly outspoken in her remarks, accusing misconduct not only of the ACO, but the commission and the investigating panel, calling it a perpetration of a fraud. She also questioned the conduct of Lewisburg Police Chief Tim Stover, present at the time of the shooting. Limited to three minutes for her comments, Montgomery continued to speak from her typewritten statement, although repeated calls to sit down were made. Finally Commissioner Lowell Rose told her, “Your time’s up, lady. Sit down or leave.”
Rose later apologized for his fit of temper, stating, “The podium is not to be used for personal attacks.”
Commission President Mike McClung then read parts of a letter to the editor printed in a local paper, saying he would “like this thing to be put to rest.” Without naming the author or the paper, McClung said there were several misstatements of fact concerning the identity of the blue ribbon panel and its report on the dog-shooting incident. In his view, those remarks were “inflammatory” and “politely put, a falsehood.” “This was not a secret panel,” he said, “and the report was read in its entirety on camera.” [Disclosure: the letter in question was published in the Mountain Messenger.]
Montgomery interrupted him, stating she was the person who wrote the letter. “Why don’t you just go ahead and say it?”
Heated words were further exchanged and Montgomery was ultimately escorted from the building by the courthouse security guard at the behest of the commission. “This used to be America!” she exclaimed when exiting the meeting room.
Later, in an update, Rose said the “blue ribbon” panel had recommended that the supervision of ACO McClung be transferred to the sheriff’s office, however, he said Sheriff Jan Cahill has declined, stating he “has too many hats as it is, and animal control is not one of them.”
“To be fair to the sheriff,” McClung said, “he is in charge of law enforcement and is also the county treasurer and tax collector.”
Commissioner Woody Hanna said the commission will need to work up procedures and guidelines for the ACO, and a motion to that effect was approved for presentation to the public by the second meeting in July.
In other business:
• Greenbrier County 9-1-1 Center assistant director Paula Brown presented seven bids for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program for the emergency shelter generator to be located at the Rhema Christian Center. The bids ranged from $781,900 to $146,967, indicating that they will have to be sorted by what is covered in the bid. The generator will be installed within two months, Brown said, once a bid is accepted.
• The courthouse Sentinel Managed Services contract and the net-defense internet security contract with Greenbrier Technologies for fiscal year 2015-16 were approved for renewal. Advanced Communications’ contract for courthouse phone maintenance was also renewed.
• Commissioner Rose named county board reappointments as follows: airport authority – Lowell Johnson; arts & recreation allocation committee – Doug Hylton and Cathey Sawyer; board of health – Vicki Gallagher; board of zoning appeals – Suzanne Horst; PSD #1 – Jim Bower will replace Michael McClung; Greenbrier County Economic Development – Steve Keadle; region 4 planning & development – Clifford Gillian. Appointments are still needed for the building commission, Rose said, as all current members’ terms are expired. Several terms are expired for the planning commission members, including for Keith Boyd, Charlie Green, Robert Gronan and David Whitt. Jim Campbell has resigned from that commission.
• County assessor Steve Keadle’s early retirement was accepted with warm remarks and commendations by all three commissioners. Three names were submitted in a letter by the county democratic chair to replace Keadle, and the commission approved appointing Mike Burke as his replacement.
• Several local residents brought comments to bear concerning the rise of municipal ordinances calling for fire service fees in outlying rural areas. Steve Clendenen, Jack Tuckwiller, Marianna Lyle, Jim Livesay, and Ben Tuckwiller all referred to the lack of recourse to citizens as the potential for more municipalities resort to following Lewisburg’s lead by voting in a rural fire service fee. They appealed to the commission to “slow Lewisburg down” by calling for a county-wide fire levy.
“This is taxation without representation,” Tuckwiller said.
“What’s going to happen when Alderson, White Sulphur Springs, and Rainelle do it,” asked Tuckwiller. “And what about the unincorporated areas?”
“I’m in direct opposition to Lewisburg,” said Livesay. “This is eliminating the democratic process. They’re not asking, but demanding. The GCC should have the power to call a fire levy, and if planned and presented in a reasonable fashion, it would pass.”
McClung said the commission is aware of the fire fee issue and plan to discuss it with the mayors of all municipalities in the county. They are trying to remedy the situation and, hopefully, he said, this can be resolved. Everyone agreed they support fire service fees, but it must be at a reasonable rate.