Plants to give up travel account
Commissioners grill official over special prosecutor expenses
By MATT MURPHY
Daily Mail STAFF
Kanawha County commissioners grilled Prosecutor Mark Plants over the ballooning costs to taxpayers and the future of Plants’ role as prosecutor if the situation is not resolved in coming months.
“It seems like everything involving this turns into an ugly mess,” Commission President Kent Carper said.
For the last two months, the county commission has been trying to find ways to pay for Special Prosecutor Don Morris, who is prosecuting the county’s domestic violence cases, and special prosecutor Sid Bell, who is prosecuting the criminal case against Plants.
Morris is being paid $200 per hour and Bell is being paid $125 per hour.
Together, their services have already cost the county nearly $80,000 so far, leaving the commission searching for ways to pay for the prosecutors.
“This just goes on and on and on,” Carper said.
After taking $50,000 from Plants’ drug forfeiture account at the commission’s June 3 meeting, the commission is now asking for “every dime” of Plants’ $27,000 travel budget for the next fiscal year.
Plants has offered $25,000 from his budget, the remainder of his drug forfeiture account — about $29,000 and his nearly $12,000 pay raise for the next two years.
Commissioners haven’t yet taken funding from those sources, opting to wait to see how it affects employees.
“The average taxpayer of this county should not have to pay for two offices,” Carper said.
Beyond the current bills, commissioners wanted to know what happens if the charges against Plants are not dropped at the end of a proposed “batterers intervention program,” which is being flown as a proposed pretrial monitoring agreement.
However, the legality of that action is being disputed.
If the charges are not dropped, the county may end up needing to pay for special prosecutors for up to two years.
“What happens if the conflict is not eviscerated by the conclusion of your program?” Carper asked Plants. “I’m not satisfied that at the conclusion of this the conflict is not voided.”
“I would certainly think the appearance of the conflict will be over at that point,” Plants replied.
Plants and his office are disqualified from prosecuting domestic violence cases because Plants faces charges of domestic battery and violating a domestic violence protective order. He is accused of whipping his 11-year-old son with a belt, causing a large bruise, and then later violating a protective order by having contact with his sons.
Carper asked Plants directly Thursday if he took “personal responsibility” for his actions, though Carper reiterated that charges don’t equate to guilt.
“I can’t comment,” Plants said, citing the ongoing investigation.
Plants said he wanted commissioners to look at ways he believes his office has saved the county money since he’s been in office.
“I just think it’s fair that this commission keep its word,” he said, later adding, “I didn’t cause this conflict.”
That statement ruffled commissioners.
“I disagree with that — I think the conflict is completely and totally your situation,” Commissioner Dave Hardy said. “You do have control over your own conduct.”
Hardy has made calls for Plants to resign in light of the financial burden to the county.
“To me, it’s a financial issue,” Hardy said. “It’s been caused by the situation you’ve found yourself in.”
Plants said he will consider the commission’s request for the travel funds.
In other business, the commission:
• Approved $250,000 to create the Kanawha County Heroin Eradication Associated Taskforce (H.E.A.T.), a coalition of law enforcement and justice officials across Kanawha County dedicated to tackling problems related to heroin.
“This is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with,” said Terry Sayre, the chairman of the law enforcement commission for the public safety grant committee and the deputy director for Yeager Airport.
Police chiefs from Charleston, South Charleston, Nitro and Dunbar, as well as Sheriff John Rutherford, Prosecutor Mark Plants, Assistant Prosecutor Chuck Miller, Ambulance Authority Chaplain Mike Jarrett and U.S. District Attorney Booth Goodwin attended Thursday’s commission meeting.
“Our critical pill addiction has now morphed into a critical heroin addiction,” Goodwin said. “Obviously we need all the recourse we can get to fight this pretty critical problem ... having resources is always critical to our fight.”
Commission President Kent Carper said the exact details of what actions the task force will take can’t be released due to “officer safety.”
“They’ve got a very well-thought out plan,” he said.
Commissioner Dave Hardy said he hears concerns about the heroin problem frequently, and supported the creation of the task force.
“This is on everybody’s mind right now,” he said.
• Approved a three percent across-the-board pay raise for county employees, plus an extra $100,000 for raises for each of the 98 sheriff deputies, who didn’t receive pay raises last year.
Sheriff John Rutherford asked the commission for the raises for the deputies, since they did not receive a raise last year like other county employees.
The three percent raise alone will cost the county just over $691,000.
•Approved the slate for police and fire department grants for fiscal year 2014-2015. The grants provide for a variety of equipment and other expenses for departments across Kanawha County.
The only caveat was the $25,000 grant for the Pratt Police Department for a new police car. Because of the issues with town-owned cars in the past year, including Pratt Mayor Gary Fields’ arrest while driving a town car, Carper said he wanted a written agreement from the town setting for what purposes the car could be used.
“Should we not tie some strings around that?” Carper said. “He can drive its own car around.
“This is not executive transport for a mayor that’s disgraced himself.”
Both Carper and Hardy said they didn’t want to punish the residents of Pratt for the mayor’s misdeeds.
“I think we all agree the mayor’s problem’s are pretty evident,” Hardy said.
• Received a presentation from Ben Beakes, the director of governmental and external affairs for Alpha Natural Resources.
Beakes spoke about the possible negative economic effects of regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency meant to reduce pollution emitted into the atmosphere.
Beakes asked for the commission’s support of the economic effects of the industry on the county, and Carper said the coal industry should consider supporting a raise in coal severance tax, which hasn’t been raised for several decades, in light of asking for the commission’s support.
“We’re the fifth largest coal producing county in the state and we get that pittance,” he said, referring to Kanawha County’s share of coal severance funding compared to the state as a whole.
The commission voted unanimously to draft a resolution supporting coal jobs in the county, though not disproving science supporting climate change.
“There is climate change,” Carper said.
• Voted to give $60,000 to the Upper Kanawha Valley Enterprise Community to keep the organization solvent through Dec. 1.
UKVEC Director Damron Bradshaw, who is also the mayor of Chesapeake, said he’s worried about the future of the agency and filling office rental space at the UKVEC building in Chelyan, which helps fund the agency.
“I am concerned and I see about five of our offices being rented in the next quarter,” he said, later adding, “I would like to have someone guide me in what to do with the enterprise community ... I am very serious though about some help.”
Commissioners said County Manager Jennifer Sayre’s office can help the UKVEC find an avenue for that help.
“Long term, I’m concerned,” Hardy said. “Some of the economic forces at play here are not you’re fault.”
• Renewed the county’s health insurance plan with Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.