Facing criticism that he left environmentalists out of the loop and allowed an improper closed-door meeting, Gov. Cecil Underwood on Friday afternoon disbanded a group he formed to write mountaintop removal legislation.The move came just hours after Underwood's press office released the names of the group's members and the panel held its first meeting.Underwood Chief of Staff Jim Teets on Friday morning kicked a group of coalfield residents out of that meeting, telling them that the group would meet in private.Former state Energy Commissioner Larry George said he was told by the governor's staff that the administration didn't want a legal fight over whether the committee's meetings would be open to the public.In a prepared statement, Underwood, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, and House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, said they disbanded the group because The Charleston Gazette threatened to sue to open the meetings."Even though the group served in no official capacity and was never formally asked to do anything but draft a bill, The Charleston Gazette threatened to sue because its personnel were not invited to meet with the group," the release said. "Instead of wasting valuable time and resources defending such a lawsuit, the three leaders decided today to disband the group."A Gazette reporter and editor called the governor's office to ask why meetings of the panel were not open to the public. The Gazette asked for the governor's office reasoning so the paper could consider whether to take any action.
James A. Haught, editor of the Gazette, said, "Clearly, this is an important public body, and the public should know what it's doing. We don't think that government actions on crucial public issues should be hidden in secret."The state Open Governmental Proceedings Act says that meetings of "any public body having the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy or administration" must generally be open to the public."The state open meetings act in no way suggests that the meetings of such an informal bill-drafting group must be publicized or that reporters must be invited every time citizens and legislators talk about ideas for legislation," the joint gubernatorial-legislative leadership release said.
The release continued, "The governor, Senate president, and speaker of the House sought to assemble this group to review information from the Governor's Task Force on Mining Practices and draft a bill efficiently and effectively for consideration during this session."Once introduced, such a bill would have been subject to public scrutiny and public input during the entire legislative process, including committee meetings and floor debates," it said. "Rather than an act of sinister intent, as the Gazette advocates suggest, the proposed formation of this group was designed to draft a bill expeditiously to bring about that public debate sooner rather than later."While the leaders are confident that state law supports their position, they determined that wasting valuable time and money defending a baseless lawsuit would have been counterproductive toward their goal of developing a responsible and reasonable approach to dealing with a very complicated and technical bill."Norm Steenstra, chief lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council, said, "We didn't expect anything to come out of this committee anyway, but what's really comical is how they're mismanaging this."Steenstra said the environmental community would introduce its own mountaintop removal bill next week.
"There absolutely has been no leadership on this issue," Steenstra said. "There has been a lot of fluff and public relations on it, but no one has taken the lead on solving the problems mountaintop removal is creating. Citizens and individual legislators have to take the lead."In a related matter, the state Division of Environmental Protection announced the dates of three public hearings on a federal government environmental impact study of mountaintop removal.The hearings will be held Feb. 23 in Summersville, Feb. 24 in Charleston and Feb. 25 in Logan, said DEP Director Michael Miano.The two-year study is mandated by a partial settlement of a federal court lawsuit aimed at curbing mountaintop removal mining. To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.