Without giving a reason, members of the West Virginia Ethics Commission voted 5-4 to fire Executive Director Joan Parker at a Thursday morning meeting. The decision came after about an hour of discussion behind closed doors.
Chairman Kemp Morton, who participated in the meeting by phone, said Parker was an at-will employee and that no reason needed to be given for her termination. He has “an interim executive director lined up” but wouldn’t name the individual.
“Executive Parker is an employee at will. The commission is being reconstituted and we simply felt it was in the best interest that she be relieved,” said Father Douglas Sutton, vice chairman of the commission.
Sutton, who was one of six commission members in favor of firing Parker, said “I don’t want to answer that question,” when asked why he voted for termination.
“Under employee-at-will law, if you offer a reason, then you open up the whole potential issue, you see,” Sutton said after the meeting.
“People had their own reasons, there were multiple reasons, and there were good points and bad points. But I’d rather keep my own reasons to myself and simply, we did this under the law in West Virginia as an employee at will.”
He said he didn’t agree with a reporter who asked if there was a lack of openness from the commission, and declined to answer further questions.
While the chairperson of the commission can only vote in the event of a tie, it was never made clear if Sutton’s vote as acting chairman for the meeting or Kemp’s vote actually counted. Both voiced support for firing Parker, as did commissioners Terry Walker, Michael Greer, Betty Ireland and Robert Wolfe.
Commissioners Jack Buckalew, Dreama Radford, Monte Williams and Susan Singleton voted against firing Parker.
Radford said, “No, I can’t. I’m sorry, no” before casting her vote. It was the only comment made during the vote.
It is a violation of open meetings laws for any public body to make any decision outside of a regularly scheduled meeting. Morton could not be reached for comment as to how he had decided on an interim executive director candidate before the commission fired Parker.
Parker, who left her position as the commission’s general counsel in February 2013 to become executive director, declined comment after the meeting. Before the board went into closed session she told the commission in a prepared statement that if she were fired, she’d leave proud of her performance.
“(If fired) then I will leave with my head held high (having) done everything within my power, even when it was unpopular, to promote compliance with the Ethics Act,” Parker said, fighting back tears.
Commissioners, some of whom later voted to fire her, rose and applauded after her comments.
After the meeting Sutton also wouldn’t comment on a potential rift between the ethics commission and the state Legislature, which sets the commission’s budget.
“There have been a number of things that have gone on this year that, you know...” Sutton said, pausing. “I mean, I think that this was the right decision at the right time, for the benefit of the commission.”
Lobbying the Legislature
During the 2014 legislative session, the commission authorized Parker to lobby against a bill that would have exempted elected Conservation District Supervisors and their family members from portions of the Ethics Act, the Charleston Gazette reported.
State Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, co-sponsored the legislation and didn’t take kindly to Parker’s initial work against the bill. However, the senator said Thursday he didn’t think the squabble was the root cause of the commission’s decision.
“This is not about the soil conservation bill. That was worked out, we tried to work out and did work out what we were doing there, what we were attempting to do,” Snyder said in a phone interview Thursday.
“I would say it has more to do with the questions that the confirmation committee asked.”
Members of the Ethics Commission are appointed by the governor, and every gubernatorial appointment is subject to approval from the Senate Confirmations Committee. In early March, Snyder requested the committee review the appointments of seven of the 12 commissioners.
Snyder, who is on the committee, recalled questions about the commission’s policy on hiring outside attorneys and comments about delays in updating the website. He thought there may have been other issues — he couldn’t remember them off hand — but said he didn’t think it was about Parker’s lobbying.
“It was a little tense at times because we were simply running out of time at the end of session,” Snyder said.
“It was simply the time element that we were concerned with at the time.”
Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh and chairman of the committee, remembered the confirmation hearing as a “run-of-the-mill” meeting with “no tough questions.”
“Sen. Snyder, he had an issue with the director, in reference to lobbying the Legislature, and that was the basis to most of the questions he submitted,” Green said in a phone interview Thursday.
All of the commissioners were approved unanimously, Green said.
“Normally, those wouldn’t have been someone on my radar to bring in,” Green said.
After the vote, several commissioners cautioned their colleagues against talking about what happened in closed session.
Kemp said anything discussed in closed session is private “and to reveal it would be an invasion of privacy.” Ireland, who previously served as Secretary of State, also said commission members weren’t supposed to talk about items discussed in closed session.
Parker told the commission public bodies may be required not to discuss specific things but that not everything necessarily had to be kept confidential.
“As a gentleman, when I go into a private discussion with somebody, I expect my confidence to be kept,” Sutton said after Parker’s comments.
Walker, a former state lawmaker who gave Parker a hug after the meeting, noted that it was ironic for the state Ethics Commission to decline to comment on firing its executive director.
“There is some irony there,” Walker said after the meeting.
He said he personally liked Parker very much.
New legislation passed during this year’s legislative session requires Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to appoint new members to a commission, making Parker’s firing one of the last acts of the current commission.
“Once members of the Ethics Commission are appointed, they act independently and Governor Tomblin respects that process,” Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman said.
“As required by House Bill 4298 passed during the 2014 legislative session, the governor will appoint members to the reconstituted commission in July.”
The law calls for a nine-person commission, as opposed to the 12 members that are supposed to be on the commission according to previous state law. The law calls on the governor to appoint nine new members, although it says members currently serving may be re-appointed.
The commission routinely went without enough members: Morton and Radford continue to serve years after the end of their five-year tenures, according to Tomblin’s office.
Commissioners considered calling a special meeting Thursday to appoint the new interim executive director. The commission’s attorney advised the body it could not legally have such a meeting without filing public notice with the Secretary of State’s office.
The website for the Secretary of State says a meeting “to discuss granting Chairperson the authority to hire interim Executive Director” is slated for 1 p.m. Wednesday.
Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.