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House adopts 100 single-member district map after charged debate, accusations of racism

Before the West Virginia House of Delegates adopted a House district map Wednesday, two delegates announced they wouldn't seek reelection and others accused each other of racism and gerrymandering.

The House ultimately adopted House Bill 301, which is the bill that contains the House district map, in a 79-20 vote after two hours of debate Wednesday afternoon.

It was the first House District Map in decades to have 100 single-member districts, in keeping with a law the Legislature passed in 2018.

“The Joint Committee on Redistricting worked very hard all summer and fall to craft a plan that will give every West Virginian an equal voice in the House of Delegates,” House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said in a news release Wednesday afternoon. “This plan will result in representation in the House that is both more uniform and more equitable for every citizen of the state.”

House Redistricting Chairman Gary Howell, R-Mineral, said the House had to work with population loss and shifts in population and areas of economic interest in the state to draw the map.

“We’ve taken great care to keep counties and municipalities whole as much as possible where it’s been requested, and you’ll see a few instances when the opposite was asked of us,” Howell said. “We’ve also tried to be mindful of communities of interest as much as possible, and those are considered to be groups of any size with similar interests, concerns and values.”

Debate about the map largely hinged on accusations from Democrats of gerrymandering and what Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, said was “Republican veto power,” on a one-on-one basis among delegates.

The House adopted the map after rejecting six proposed amendments from House Democrats that mostly would have altered a handful of districts in the delegates’ home counties. 

House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said the map had a higher rate of Democrat incumbents running against each other than Republican incumbents, saying single member districts were a step forward for the state, but the way they were drawn pushed parts of the state backward.

"We were inconsistent," Skaff said. "I know it's a hard, long process, and I respect everybody who was involved, but it's unfortunate that we actually had single member districts, like Wetzel County, that already existed and were broken up. It seemed like someplace in the state we went backwards, and in other places we made strides." 

Skaff is the president of HD Media, parent company of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

The debate about the actual map turned into accusations of racism from members of both parties, part of a ripple effect of learning that the House Redistricting Committee redrew a district line to prevent Delegate Caleb Hanna, R-Nicholas, who is Black, from being in a district with the National Alliance, a white supremacy group with its worldwide headquarters in Pocahontas County.

Delegates throughout the week have described the group as being fairly inactive with only a few members.

The vote came a few hours after a public hearing on the map during which Howard Swint, a local activist, displayed a Confederate flag while he disparaged lawmakers for attempting to protect one of their own “but also attempting to protect your super majority political base.”

Other speakers at the morning hearing in the House chamber asked lawmakers to keep communities of interest, whether it was entire cities and towns or communities with similar economic and social interests, intact. Most speakers had addressed lawmakers in various redistricting public hearings throughout the summer and requested specific border changes in certain parts of the state to maintain their communities. 

The Legislature is under a tight schedule to complete redistricting before Nov. 8, the residency deadline for people wishing to seek public office in their respective districts.

State lawmakers are drawing the maps amid a nearly 2-year-old pandemic that delayed the release of census data by four months, and they are compensating for the highest rate of population loss in U.S. over the past decade.

Debate turns to racism in district boundaries

The most heated portions of debate Thursday came in the form of accusations of racism over two issues.

The first issue came earlier this week when House Analyst Jeff Billings told members of the House Redistricting Committee that at least two districts involving Pocahontas, Nicholas, Webster, and Greenbrier counties were redrawn to prevent Hanna, who also is the youngest delegate in the House, from being the incumbent delegate in a district that included the National Alliance white supremacy group.

On Monday, Hanna and Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, told the Gazette-Mail they had discussed the matter, and Steele made the request to change the district, saying “it would be inappropriate and irresponsible to put him in a situation where he’s possibly at-risk.”

Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, referred to that incident as well as Swint displaying the Confederate flag in the House chamber Wednesday, saying “the majority of West Virginians and the overwhelming majority of people in this Legislature don’t support that type of action, doesn't support racism or things like that.”

Under questioning from Hansen, Delegate Todd Longanacre, R-Greenbrier, took that time to say the House Redistricting Committee did a good job, and turned his attention to comments made by Delegate Kayla Young, D-Kanawha earlier during debate.

“[The map] was done with the population in mind,” Longanacre said. “I’ve sat here today and heard people insinuate it should have been done based on ethnicity. I think that’s the most racist think I’ve heard in this chamber, and it should be done based on population.”

While proposing an amendment to districts in Kanawha County, Young said West Virginia’s Black population is 3.6% but said Institute’s Black population was 54%.

“That’s a community of interest, and those people deserve to vote together,” Young said.

The House rejected her amendment, which attempted to make whole Institute, South Charleston, and Dunbar within their respective districts.

Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, the only Black woman in the West Virginia Legislature, spoke about her experiences with racism, which include having eggs thrown at her home and threats of assassination so serious that she has contacted the FBI three times since being in office.

“I don’t think any of us were going to introduce an amendment where our colleague would be placed near that headquarters,” Walker said. “What are we telling our future leaders and our present leaders when they choose to put their name on the ballot? How many other headquarters like this exist in West Virginia?”

Gerrymandering accusations, defenses stir debate

The House debate for the House map opened in a straightforward fashion with Howell describing the bill.

The first person to speak about the bill was Delegate Dave Pethtel, D-Wetzel, who has served in the House for 30 years.

Pethtel said he expected changes to his district due to population loss in Wetzel County, and he had gone back and forth for the last year about whether to run again.

“I prayed about it and asked the Lord to give me a clear sign as to what I should do,” Pethtel said. “When I saw the first draft map that put Wetzel into four districts and the gentlelady from the fourth, who I have great respect for, Delegate Zukoff and I were in the same district, I knew that was my sign to retire. I will not seek re-election in 2022.”

Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, announced he would not be seeking reelection as he proposed an amendment to the bill Tuesday, saying that his new district was impossible to win with or without his amendment.

Debate after Pethtel’s speech harkened back to comments Zukoff made during the debate about an amendment she proposed.

Zukoff told the House that she was told delegates should work with one another relative to their districts and counties to draw district lines.

"We were told, ‘Work with your colleague in your area,’ which in my case happens to be a Republican, and if they approve the changes, we’ll make the changes on the redistricting map,” Zukoff said. “So in essence what you did, if there were a Democrat and a Republican in the same district, you gave the Republican veto power. That’s not how this is supposed to work.”

After Zukoff’s amendment was rejected and during the debate about adopting the bill, Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, said Democrats had every opportunity to offer amendments and communicate their concerns but didn’t before Wednesday.

“It sounds like the left hand doesn’t want to know what the right hand is doing,” Linville said.

Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, and Walker were among the delegates who asked the Legislature to consider legislation to establish a nonpartisan redistricting committee for the 2031 redistricting process.

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, also asked for a nonpartisan commission, and went on to call the House map ”a gerrymandered mess” that was created only to protect political power “relative to one side.”

“I would just beg, take into account the voices that are being heard up here, the voices that don’t have lobbyists, the voices that can’t afford to take you to dinner,” Pushkin said.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that two delegates, Dave Pethtel, D-Wetzel, and John Doyle, D-Jefferson, announced they would not seek reelection to the West Virginia House of Delegates on Tuesday.

Ice cream shop hopes to continue West Side revival

Lemon appears to be an early customer favorite at Dancing Dog Ice Cream. If that sounds surprising to you, it’s also a surprise to its co-owner, Bob Herrick.

Odds are, Herrick will continue to perfect the distinctive flavor. Maybe it needs no more tinkering. When it comes to running West Side businesses and acquiring West Side properties, he and partner Steve Duffield seldom yield a lemon.

Without fanfare, the two — partners in business and life — have acquired dozens of buildings in a part of town associated with crime and blight. Six of their holdings are rooted in the somewhat trendy Elk City district, which comprises southern Bigley Avenue; Washington Street West from the Elk River to Maryland Avenue; and northern Tennessee Avenue, near its intersection with Washington Street.

The two heavily invested in West Side commercial and residential properties in the early 1990s.

“And we saved like the dickens,” Herrick said.

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail 

Bob Herrick stands in front of Dancing Dog Ice Cream, on Washington Street West, earlier this week. Herrick owns the ice cream shop with his partner, Steve Duffield.

Herrick and Duffield, familiar to some as the commercial supervisor in the Kanawha County Assessor’s Office, then rented a space on Bigley in the same building as Dutchess Bakery. Winter Floral was born. Those spaces are now filled by Mea Cuppa coffee shop and a chiropractor.

In fits and starts, lurching and creeping, Elk City has slowly taken shape over the past 10 years or so. Herrick, a New Martinsville native, and Kanawha Valley product Duffield have had ringside seats, first from a rented spot on Bigley, then to a more prominent role as owners of a handsome red brick building on the corner of Bigley and Washington.

It was from there that Herrick, from his second-floor office perch, would visualize the street below as a safe, hospitable place to live, work and shop. The district continues to strive for that permanent designation, one storefront at a time. Two principal cogs in the wheel have been the development efforts of Herrick/Duffield and Tighe Bullock, who plans to open a large distillery soon, to add to his other ventures in the district.

“It truly means a lot to me to have this part of town healthy,” Herrick said. “Steve moved his mother to the West Side. You don’t do that if you’re not committed to the area. We could have chosen to invest in other cities or in other parts of this city.”

The two live on the West Side and own six buildings in Elk City. Winter Floral, Backstage Bodywear, Dancing Dog Ice Cream, Boutique 218 and Choice Medical call Herrick’s buildings home. He and Duffield own the building that houses Dancing Dog and Boutique 218, next to Artists’ Alley and Bullock’s Staats hospital building. It’s Dancing Dog that now commands the pair’s attention. And, since its opening two weeks ago, that of others.

Andrea Bledsoe, 49, of Chapmanville, works just up the street, at Green Infusion, a cannabis supply shop. She stopped in Monday at Dancing Dog for a scoop each of mint chocolate and raspberry.

“What’s not to like about ice cream?” she asked. “It’s refreshing. I used to be someone to walk to a convenience store for a candy bar, but this is much better. It’s something new for the West Side.”

Herrick said he had been a fan of Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream in downtown Charleston for years and wanted to open up a shop comparable in quality. That means shooting for a super-premium concoction between 14% and 18% milk fat, although Herrick won’t say exactly where Dancing Dog’s fat content lands. Super-premium ice cream can’t be full of air either. The denser the better. The Oreo meets both criteria, creamy and thick. Texture and mouth feel are important qualities, two criteria the Oreo meets with ease.

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail 

Customer Andrea Bledsoe ponders the choices at Dancing Dog Ice Cream as Devon Hughes (left) and his twin brother, Damon, wait to take her order.

dancing dog ice cream3

All recipes are cobbled together from various sources, and then Herrick tinkers with them. So far, business is good, although Herrick is still experimenting with hours. Currently, the establishment is open from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 12:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 1 to 3 p.m. on Sunday.

Herrick loves the 206 Washington St. West location, near what he calls the “sweet spot” of Elk City. Washington Street is full of traffic, motorists exiting the interstate to head to Edgewood or North Charleston. There are plans to clean up the space between Herrick’s building and Bullock’s Staats hospital building and string lights between them, a la downtown’s Brawley Walkway.

Inside Dancing Dog — named for how happy a dog is to see you upon arrival — a white, tin ceiling is set off by LED lights mounted on sleek electric cables. Tables and other furnishings are not top dollar, Herrick freely admits, but very presentable.

The building once served as a five-and-dime and, most recently, Lee’s Dance Studio. When Herrick and Duffield bought it, they split it into two storefronts, Dancing Dog and Boutique 218, which is separately operated.

“I remember when we didn’t have anything but Chris’ Hot Dogs, Dutchess Bakery and Kelly’s Men’s Shop,” Herrick said.

None of those are around now, but determined souls such as Herrick are finding replacements.

MU presidential candidate says collaboration is key to Marshall’s success

HUNTINGTON — Collaboration and comprehensive opportunities are the main focuses of Malaysia native Bernard Arulanandam, one of the five finalists in the search for Marshall University’s next president.

Arulanandam, vice president for research, economic development and knowledge enterprise at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is the fourth finalist to visit Marshall’s campus Thursday, following Robyn Hannigan, provost, Clarkson University; Brad D. Smith, Marshall alumnus, philanthropist and former CEO of Intuit; and Kathy Johnson, executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The last finalist to visit Marshall is Bret Danilowicz, provost and vice president for academic affairs, Florida Atlantic University, who is set to arrive Monday.

The search for a new president comes following current Marshall President Jerome Gilbert’s announcement that he will not seek an extension of his contract set to end in July.

Arulanandam said comprehensive engagement between Marshall’s faculty, staff and students will be a main focus to help enhance programs and advance opportunities.

“For me, the primary focus that I want to bring to Marshall is the primary focus that I have at UTSA. Really everything that we do is really to maximize the potential of our students, graduate and undergraduate, to be highly successful in their respective fields. So number one is student success,” he said.

Arulanandam moved to the United States to pursue higher education and received his Bachelor of Science degree in toxicology and a Master of Arts degree at Minnesota State University. He went on to complete a doctorate in microbiology and immunology at the Medical College of Ohio and fellowship at Albany Medical College in New York before moving to the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and receiving his Master of Business Administration.

Marshall’s sense of purpose and resilience is what attracted Arulanandam to apply for the presidency, he said, but as a big sports fan, he said he appreciates the athletic department and was excited to learn of the university’s soccer team taking home a national title earlier this year.

As a chief research officer at UTSA, Arulanandam said the university has rebranded itself to understand how to become a comprehensive research institution that can impact society. By doing this, he said, departments are able to better understand why and how their fields are affecting the students and community around them and build relationships between fields.

Arulanandam said Marshall has the opportunity to become a comprehensive research institution because of the variety of programs it offers that can work together.

“Marshall has a comprehensive portfolio that has so many touch points that could be brought together,” he said. “That’s what I think of as career-engaged learning. It’s really not just getting a four-year degree; it’s really a continuum of engaging our students through the variety of programs.”

Through finding ways that arts and humanities programs can work with STEM fields, he said, career opportunities can be made available and research opportunities can be enhanced, he said.

In addition to student engagement, Arulanandam wants to improve student enrollment by expanding recruitment opportunities globally.

While Marshall offers plenty for local students and surrounding states, Arulanandam said, the university can provide great opportunities to international students. With his experience in strategic research and the advancements of technology that could be used to understand where recruitment should be increased, Arulanandam said he could work with other officials to determine what programs are interesting students worldwide.

Margo Dellicarpini, chancellor at Penn State Abington and former dean of the College of Education and Human Development at UTSA, said she worked with Arulanandam for about four years and learned he is an avid listener who puts others’ needs first.

“The first thing that I noticed about him is that he really does listen rather than coming in with a preconceived notion about something,” Dellicarpini said. “He’s able to create collaborative teams. He’s able to be inspirational and help people really move forward, and help collectively come around a shared vision.”

Dellicarpini said she went on to work as the vice provost for strategic educational partnerships and worked closely with Arulanandam. During his time at UTSA, she said, Arulanandam helped departments throughout the university get research grants approved to further their programs.

In her College of Education and Human Development alone, Dellicarpini said Arulanandam helped them go from averaging about $3.5 million in funding a year to about $10 million a year.

As an immunologist, Arulanandam is co-chairman of UTSA’s public health recovery task force and has been studying vaccines and diseases for years. He said the next president of Marshall will have to deal with the reality of COVID-19 cases declining, but possibly becoming a seasonal illness that will require regular protocols.

“We will get over this pandemic because we have the power of science, vaccines and therapeutics, but we are going to go into an endemic state, the definition being that COVID will persist in our community for at least the foreseeable future,” he said. “So the incoming president is going to be taking on COVID as it sort of dissipates, but not taking their eye off the ball and having those safeguards in place to keep our faculty, staff and students moving forward.”

Dellicarpini said Arulanandam is sensitive to the needs of the students and university, is empathetic, organized and highly skilled, and because of those traits would make a great university president.

“I think that obviously the candidate pools are strong, and I know Marshall has done their due diligence in putting together a very strong pool of candidates,” she said. “But I don’t think that there’s a candidate who would do better for the institution and would be more dedicated than Bernard, and I think that the community and the campus would be very lucky to have him as their president.”

Charleston Town Center mall appraised at $21.5M following daylong negotiations

Following grueling, daylong negotiations Tuesday, the new owner of the Charleston Town Center mall and the Kanawha County Assessor’s Office agreed on, and commissioners approved, an appraised value of $21.5 million for the downtown shopping center.

Talks took place in Kanawha County Commission chambers, before a sizable crowd that thinned out as the verbal jousting wore on. The negotiations constituted a Board of Assessment Appeals hearing, not a regular county commission meeting.

The Hull Group President Jim Hull and employee Patrick Muller, who acquires properties for Hull, both maintained that property taxes should be based more closely on the May sale price of $7.5 million, proposing an appraisal right at $10 million. Hull outbid six other companies to purchase the mall, in what they characterized as an open process.

The Assessor’s Office entered negotiations at $30 million, so the two sides more or less met in the middle. By agreeing to the deal, it is unlikely Hull will reverse field and appeal.

Because U.S. Bank bought the asset from the mall’s first owner, failed to auction it off and operated the mall for 18 months, Hull maintained the purchase was an “arm’s length transaction,” meaning it was a true sale and not a distressed or invalid one.

“That’s the highest price it would bring in an open market,” Jim Hull said.

In his introduction as a witness, Hull said he is an Air Force veteran who entered real estate appraisal in 1972 and the development business in 1977. He said his real estate portfolio is worth $1 billion.

Steve Duffield, the Assessor’s Office Commercial Supervisor, acknowledged his office downplayed the sale cost, deeming it “distressed” and “invalid.” As the day wore on, Commission President Kent Carper and commissioners Ben Salango and Lance Wheeler seemed to lean more to the legitimate sale side.

After going back and forth all day — the meeting began at 11 a.m., broke for afternoon lunch and ended around 6 p.m. — Duffield and team gave the sale more weight, lowering its original valuation from $30 million to the final $21.5 million.

Three approaches are used in calculating property taxes — cost, market and income. Cost is perhaps the most complicated, “based on an assumption that the cost of a property, less depreciation, yields a reasonable estimate of market value,” according to the Kanawha County Assessor’s handbook. From there nuances rise to the surface, with different cost appraisal methods and functional obsolescence playing a part.

A market approach considers what comparable properties in the area are selling for. Homeowners often see the value of their property affected this way. Income methodology takes into account income and rate of return on investment.

Because the Assessor’s Office had based its evaluation on equal parts income and market, its figure checked in at $30 million. That amount was still $20 million lower than what it maintained last week, before Hull disputed square footage figures and gross leasable area as opposed to gross building area, in addition to pointing to the sell price. The gross building area figure considers the entire mall, including the three attached anchors and the detached Encova insurance building.

Hull does not own those, but Duffield said if a catastrophe occurred and those properties were lost, replacement cost would be affected. Replacement cost is a function of cost as a category of appraisal.

“It’s a calculation that takes in every structural element, including the heating, cooling and water it takes to build that mall back,” Duffield said.

The two sides argued over basic facts at the outset. Carper chided The Hull Group for not being present at a status conference last week, in which some matters could have been settled.

At one point, Hull proposed a 10-year payback if the county would not back down on its $30 million figure.

“So, if you had your way you wouldn’t pay taxes for 10 years,” Carper told Hull.

On another occasion, Carper asked the Assessor’s representatives why, in trying bolster their case, they mentioned a non-Hull mall that recently sold in Wisconsin. The mall sold for only $3 million but would have been valued at $16.8 million using the Kanawha Assessor’s Office methodology, Assessor’s attorney Randy Saunders said. It was torn down shortly after the sale, indicating it must not have been worth much.

“Why would you mention that, Randy?” Carper asked. “How does that help you?”

Muller said he has been successful across the country in getting local boards to lower taxes on properties The Hull Group owns. It owns 33 malls, mostly in the Southeast, and many other real estate assets. He mentioned his success in lowering an appraisal on a Hudson Valley, New York, mall from $80 million to $8 million the following tax year.

Muller said he did not have an independent appraisal done on the Town Center mall, because in past cases it hasn’t been necessary.

Justice proposes COVID-19 mandate exemption legislation

Under legislation proposed by Gov. Jim Justice, employers who require COVID-19 vaccines for their workers would be required to allow for religious and medical exemptions to that mandate.

Justice asked the West Virginia Legislature to take up the measure during its special session this week.

“I absolutely, firmly believe that this country was founded upon our rights and freedoms,” Justice said during his COVID-19 briefing Wednesday. “That’s really, really the ingredient that makes America great. It surely is what makes West Virginia great.”

Justice’s proposed legislation seemed to contradict comments he made about vaccine mandates during Monday’s COVID-19 briefing.

“Our private businesses are our private businesses,” Justice said Monday. ”We should not be telling a private business what they should or should not do.”

While West Virginia currently has no known laws relating to employer vaccine mandates, state law does not allow religious or philosophical exemptions for immunizations required to attend schools. The state’s school students are required to be vaccinated against whooping cough, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox and hepatitis B.

Health officials in the past have touted the state’s strong immunization laws and its high rate of childhood immunizations.

Justice clarified that his proposed legislation would not apply to other vaccines besides COVID-19.

“These other vaccines for mumps, measles and rubella have been around a long time; it’s weathered the test of time,” Justice said. “Even though I whole-heartedly support the [COVID-19] vaccine, I will continue to absolutely encourage, in every way, for people to take these vaccines, because I truly believe in my heart they are very, very, very safe.”

The House Government Organization Committee passed the governor’s bill, which was opposed by two of the state’s largest hospital systems, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine, along with the state hospital association, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the state Medical Association.

The House of Delegates rejected a call to refer the bill to its Health Committee and read the bill for a first time.

The Senate also took up a version of the bill for a first reading Wednesday.

The bill is up for second reading in the House and the Senate Thursday.