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Huntington, Morgantown lead state in LGBTQ+ equality, according to national report

HUNTINGTON — Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said in 2014 he was shocked to learn that the city had only scored a 45 on the Municipal Equality Index, the only nationwide assessment of LGBTQ+ equality regarding municipal policies, laws and services.

“I did not believe this truly indicated the hearts of the majority of people in Huntington, so we became intentional in our actions, with the goal to score 100,” Williams said.

Thursday morning, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the educational arm of the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) civil rights organization, in partnership with The Equality Federation, released its 10th annual Municipal Equality Index, and Huntington received a perfect 100 score for the third year in a row.

“I am unbelievably proud to be first West Virginia municipality to score 100, and even more proud that we have been able to do it for three consecutive years,” Williams said. “This is a strong indication of how communities can lead the state in diversity, equality and inclusion.”

Williams said the city’s “Open to All” anti-discrimination campaign now has over 300 participating businesses and organizations and continues to grow. He said the goal of the campaign is to promote diversity and inclusion by broadening views beyond race, gender and sexual orientation.

“Those participating in this campaign place a sticker on their door to let all citizens know they are coming to a safe place that is open to all,” he said.

Williams said it also encourages maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for all employees, customers, visitors and vendors, regardless of race, religion, ancestry, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or income status.

“Receiving a perfect score in the 2021 Municipal Equality Index validates what our community already knows — that Huntington is a city of honor, respect and compassion,” Williams said.

Morgantown also received a 100 score, for the very first time. Charleston was recognized with an “All-Star” designation, with a score of 94.

Jack Jarvis, communications manager with Fairness West Virginia, said MEI All-Stars earned over 85 points, despite hailing from a state without statewide nondiscrimination statutes that explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Currently, there are 21 states with explicit protections for LGBTQ+ people, including our neighboring state of Virginia,” Jarvis said. “Unfortunately, West Virginia is not one of them.”

This means that, in 29 states, including West Virginia, LGBTQ people can be denied access to public services because of who they are.

Jarvis said the Fairness Act has come before the Legislature but has not progressed.

“While we have had support from both Democrats and Republicans, there are still others that have not supported us in passing the Fairness Act,” he said.

The average score on the index for cities in West Virginia is 65 out of 100 points, which falls 2 below the national average of 67. Parkersburg scored only a 13.

Williams said there is still a lot of work to be done.

“We are organizing our community so that every person has a distinct and vested responsibility to advance our city’s prosperity,” he said. “Our vision is that we embrace our diversity and actively seek inclusiveness as we learn to stand as one people celebrating our differences. We will be able to shape our future by assuring every person in our city has a seat at the table and has a voice to be heard.”

Williams said one concern he has on a state level is that some legislators want to take away a municipalities’ right to enact these types of protections and invalidate actions already taken by cities, like Huntington.

“I believe municipalities in the state should have the right to self-governance,” he said. “We will fight any attempt to take this away.”

Jarvis added that 15 municipalities have adopted ordinances and laws to protect those in the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination.

“Those most recent have been Keyser and South Charleston,” he said. “These 15 cities represent about 15% of the state’s total population.”

“In West Virginia, we believe that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. That’s why so many of our communities have stepped up to the challenge to advance LGBTQ equality in new and exciting ways,” Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, said in a prepared statement. “I’m proud of the hard work our municipal leaders have done over the past year, especially leaders in Morgantown and Charleston, for being the first communities to ban the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy.”

This year, a record 110 cities throughout the country earned the highest score of 100, which is up from 11 in 2012, illustrating the striking advancements municipalities have made over the past 10 years, officials said.

The report also contains an issue brief for policymakers that covers how municipalities can support transgender and nonbinary people, as well as the types of challenges they face, ways that a city can support them and guidance on forming an anti-transgender and nonbinary violence-prevention task force.

The full report, including detailed scorecards for every city, as well as a searchable database, is available online at www.hrc.org/mei.

PHOTOS: Health fair hosted at Charleston church

Local health care providers teamed up with the Kanawha County Commission and the city of Charleston to host the Hero and Health Fair at Bible Center Church on Thursday.

The fair was hosted by the Kanawha- Charleston Health Department, Charleston Area Medical Center’s Women and Children’s Hospital, West Virginia Health Network, the Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority, Kanawha County Commission and the city of Charleston.

This is the second drive-thru health event held this month in Kanawha County. On offer for free Thursday were flu and COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, blood pressure and blood glucose checks, at-home colon cancer screening tests, car seat checks, smoke alarms and health education handouts. Routine blood work also was done for free or at a reduced rate, according to a news release.

The first 200 children were given free bicycle helmets, and children also had the opportunity to meet first responders and see emergency vehicles.

Former Holz Elementary teacher indicted for allegedly abusing 3 children

A Kanawha County grand jury has indicted a former Holz Elementary School teacher for allegedly harming three special education children, including striking one with a file cabinet door, jerking her by her hair and throwing her to the floor.

Nancy Boggs, 66, of Charleston, is accused in the indictments of twice “driving” another student’s head down “causing his forehead to strike his desk.” And she’s accused of slapping two of the children in the face and jerking the chairs out from under two, causing them to fall to the floor.

She faces 23 counts of misdemeanor battery and a single count of verbal abuse of a noncommunicative child.

For each misdemeanor battery charge, the possible penalty is imprisonment for up to a year, a fine of up to $500, or both fined and confined. The single verbal abuse charge threatens a $500 to $2,500 fine, being jailed up to six months, or both.

This is the same Boggs who was sued last week by the parents of Trenton Bowden, a 9-year-old with cognitive delays and physical limitations.

“Defendant Boggs slapped T.B. in the chest for not answering questions correctly,” the lawsuit alleges. “When T.B. continued to answer the questions incorrectly, Defendant Boggs grabbed T.B. by the neck, turned his head towards hers and slapped T.B. in the face. T.B. cried out, ‘I want my daddy,’ to which Defendant Boggs replied, ‘Your daddy’s not coming. He’s not going to help you.’ ”

The criminal indictments, which were publicly released Thursday, identify the three allegedly abused children by initials, not names. T.B. is among the initials.

The Gazette-Mail was unable to reach Boggs’ attorney Thursday. Kanawha Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Sam Marsh said Boggs pleaded not guilty and has a trial date set for April 7.

The indictments are the latest in a string of criminal cases and lawsuits since May, alleging that Kanawha school system employees physically and verbally abused special education children, including nonverbal ones.

The central evidence in each lawsuit and criminal case has been video footage of the alleged abuse. These recordings, which haven’t been publicly released, were made possible by a 2019 state law mandating cameras in certain special education classrooms.

County school systems are supposed to preserve video footage for 90 days at a time, allowing them and law enforcement to review back that far after an alleged incident. The lawsuit alleges abuse only on Sept. 22, and the indictments allege it occurred on Sept. 8 and Sept. 22.

Marsh said prosecutors wanted to ensure “nothing was missed.” He said Charleston police did the bulk of the video review, alongside a school system employee.

“It was a rather tedious process in reviewing a lot of video,” Marsh said.

Still, he said he believes not all of the days have been reviewed yet, but this was the last grand jury for this term and officials felt it was appropriate to share what they had.

The four other allegedly abused children were in a Horace Mann Middle School classroom, and their alleged abusers, a few adults in the same classroom, have been sued and criminally charged.

These new indictments and the new lawsuit allege abuse by a single teacher at Holz, a South Hills school.

“Kanawha County Schools discovered the issue at Holz Elementary with this former staff person after a student made a report to school personnel,” Kanawha schools spokeswoman Briana Warner wrote in an email Thursday.

“At that initial discovery, we made the appropriate notifications to parents, law enforcement and child protective services,” she wrote. “We have been working with law enforcement and child protective services since to provide all of the evidence that we have and support their investigation in any way possible. This individual is no longer a KCS employee and we will not comment on their ongoing criminal investigation or charges.”

Lottery: October casino revenue rebounds, as record September COVID-19 surge fades

West Virginia casinos saw a bump in business in October, something Lottery Director John Myers attributes to a drop in COVID-19 cases after a record spike in September.

“That’s the only thing I can figure,” he said after Thursday’s Lottery Commission meeting. “People are feeling more comfortable going back into casinos.”

Video lottery machines in the four racetrack casinos took in $41.64 million, topping revenue from Limited Video Lottery in bars and clubs statewide for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

That was up 10% from $37.97 million in September, and up 18% from $35.34 million in October 2020.

Table games at the casinos also saw a strong recovery in October, grossing $3.02 million, up 8% from September, and up 43% from October 2020.

The casino at The Greenbrier resort shared in the bounce, with overall revenue of $704,000 up 10% from September and up 62% from October 2020.

Limited Video Lottery machines in 1,179 bars, clubs and fraternals around the state took in $41.23 million, up $1.77 million from September, and up $3.93 million from October 2020.

Limited Video Lottery has performed strongly during the pandemic, including setting all-time monthly records in excess of $50 million for the months of March and April.

There are nearly 8,200 Limited Video Lottery machines operating in West Virginia, about 1,000 more than in October 2020, after a decision earlier this year to bid out the maximum 9,000 Limited Video Lottery licenses, instead of the usual cap of 8,000 licenses.

Limited Video Lottery operators are awaiting delivery of the remaining 800 machines, Myers said, with a shipment of about 200 machines to West Virginia expected by the end of the week or early next week.

For the month, overall Lottery gross revenue was $107.4 million, up $3.8 million from September, and up $13.42 million from October 2020.

For the first four months of the 2021-22 budget year, the Lottery has grossed $427.93 million, up $55.07 million, or 15%, over the same point in 2020.

For October, the state’s share of Lottery profits was $48.43 million, up $6.9 million over October 2020. Year-to-date state profits total $190.24 million, up $25.46 million over the same point in 2020.

Also during Thursday’s Lottery Commission meeting:

  • Myers announced the reorganization of the Lottery’s Security Division, splitting the division into two sections, one overseeing casinos, i-gaming and sports wagering operations, headed by Chris Franko; the other overseeing traditional scratch-off and draw games and Limited Video Lottery, headed by Steve Compston.

As part of the reorganization, longtime Security Division director David Bradley was promoted to Lottery deputy director.

  • For the first time, the state privilege tax on i-gaming, which permits play of casino-style slots and table games on cellphones and computers, topped $1 million for October, at $1.08 million.

Overall, i-gaming grossed $7.22 million for the month, with online gaming apps affiliated with The Greenbrier dominating the market, accounting for $3.89 million of the total.

The Greenbrier and Hollywood Casino, in Charles Town, also accounted for the lion’s share of online sports betting revenue in October, together bringing in $2.22 million of the $2.39 million statewide gross for the month.

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition board votes to dissolve organization amid stalled negotiations with union

One of the Ohio Valley’s most prominent environmental groups has voted to dissolve amid contract negotiations with its union, raising questions about the organization’s treatment of its workers and the effects its void will leave on environmental activism throughout the region.

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition board of directors voted Tuesday evening to dissolve the organization amid stalled negotiations with the union formed earlier this year on its first collective bargaining agreement.

“All members of the OVEC Union are already working tirelessly to find avenues to continue the work and rebuild in the void left by this institution and the selfish people who decided to kill it instead of allowing it to change,” the union said in a statement Wednesday.

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, a Huntington-based nonprofit formed in 1987, said in a statement published on its website Thursday afternoon that it could not disclose the reasons for its dissolution “due to confidential personnel matters and ongoing legal issues.”

The dissolution is effective immediately, coalition co-director Vivian Stockman said in an email Thursday.

The board voted 10-1 to dissolve the organization, the coalition said.

“[W]e are no longer able to diligently carry out our mission,” the coalition said in its statement.

Workers voted in a July election managed by the National Labor Relations Board to certify the union, which affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World international labor union. The workers first announced their intention to unionize in March, when they submitted a request for voluntary recognition from management.

Environmental groups say they’re losing a vital partner in the coalition.

“OVEC has been the trailblazing group for environmental justice activism,” West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said in an email. “So many communities benefited from their dedication to exposing truths, negotiating solutions, and keeping people most impacted by environmental harms at the center of their work.”

The coalition’s assets will be distributed to nonprofits with similar missions, the organization said.

Co-directors Vivian Stockman and Tonya Adkins announced retirements earlier this month that were to be effective at the end of the year — moves that the organization said in its statement Thursday were early retirements to avoid serving in the group’s work climate.

“We believe the pandemic — which prevented us from meeting in person — contributed to the unraveling of trust within OVEC,” the organization said in its statement.

Union members said in phone interviews Wednesday that board members refused to negotiate in good faith, canceled a negotiation session scheduled for late last month hours beforehand and bullied union workers and other board members sympathetic to the unionization effort while management greatly limited communications with them and devalued their work.

Stockman declined comment on personnel issues but said that as staff numbers grew during the pandemic, her work to “strengthen and build co-workers’ relationships as a team” and uphold the coalition’s vision were “significantly challenged.”

“[T]o attempt to succinctly summarize what has transpired would not do justice to the difficulties we’ve all been going through,” Stockman said.

“Yeah, it’s devastating,” coalition community organizer Alex Cole said in a phone interview Wednesday. “If this is truly who OVEC is, they don’t deserve to exist anymore.”

Then-coalition project coordinator Dustin White said in a phone interview Wednesday that staff began having conversations about unionizing last fall and were outed by another employee to management during a staff call in March.

White said that a two-hour Zoom teleconference call with board member Mike Forman followed in which he berated workers for considering unionization. White and other union members say board members and management began ignoring them.

“It became quite obvious after the meeting in March they were dead set against a union,” White said.

An April message with Forman’s signature addressed to other board members called the unionization effort a “COUP” in capital letters, that the union members’ choice to organize with the Industrial Workers of the World was in part about “Socialist Anarchism” and that the workers were trying to transform the coalition into a “radical organization based on their fringe beliefs.”

The union published a message in May attributed to former board member Mikael Huffman, who is Black, saying she resigned from the board two months earlier after experiencing “White Supremacy Culture” as she was spoken over and condescended by unnamed board members.

In a May Facebook post published after she resigned from the board earlier that month, former board Vice Chairperson Bayleigh Epperly said that she tried to bridge the gap between board members and staff for six weeks. But other unnamed board members called her and others “unqualified and inexperienced” to silence them and refused to hear from staff, Epperly said.

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition released a statement in July congratulating the employees on their unionization.

But the board suspended then-director of organizing Brendan Muckian-Bates with pay in March before firing him in May, saying he was unlawfully organizing a union as a supervisor. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in June that coalition failed to show that worker was a supervisor under federal labor law.

The board also fired White in May, alleging that he violated organization civility rules during an email exchange. White says he was just “call[ing] out [board members] on their behavior.”

Union members say that after months of trying to secure a date, they agreed with the board to a first collective bargaining negotiation date of Oct. 27. But union members say coalition negotiators insisted on meeting in person when the union preferred to meet virtually since they are based throughout the state and White was diagnosed in June with diabetes, leaving him immunocompromised.

The union says coalition negotiators canceled the session hours before it was scheduled to start on Oct. 27, rejecting a compromise it offered in which some union members would meet their counterparts in person and others would join remotely.

“They really have tried to drag every single thing out as much as humanly possible this whole time,” Cole said.

The union said the coalition would owe at least $50,000 in back pay for White and Muckian-Bates unless it agreed to a settlement proposal drafted by the National Labor Relations Board in September.

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition removed itself from environmental lawsuits in recent months. It cited “internal challenges” that prompted its board of directors to adopt a resolution directing its counsel to withdraw from a suit against Gov. Jim Justice’s Bluestone Coal Corp. that led to a federal judge finding the company liable for water pollution near a McDowell County surface mine.

The coalition acknowledged volatility in its ranks since the start of 2020, when it had five employees. The organization said it added one new employee just days before it went into pandemic shutdown and added four more last year.

But 2021 saw the coalition firing Muckian-Bates and White, losing four more employees through resignations and hiring only one replacement. Stockman and Adkins decided to announce early retirements rather than continue serving in the current work climate, the coalition said Thursday.

“The spread of misinformation through social media also played a role in OVEC’s current situation,” the coalition said.

Cole, 32, said he and White were expected to organize communities and stay on top of environmental issues along 300 miles of the Ohio River corridor without support from management, which he said hamstrung digital initiatives because it didn’t want to change the organization’s website even after receiving a grant to do so.

“A reoccurring theme at OVEC is that change is not allowed,” Cole said. “You’re not allowed to change anything.”

Forman, who served as union president for three National Air Traffic Controllers Association locals, denied being anti-union in an email, adding that the OVEC union and accused Industrial Workers of the World had put out “disinformation and misinformation.” He declined further comment.

Board Chair Mike Sullivan and other board members could not be reached for comment.

Former coalition project coordinator Robin Blakeman left the staff in May because she could not tolerate what she called “rising conflict” any longer.

“I worked for OVEC for 12 years and it was the best job, with the most collaborative and equitable work environment I have yet experienced in my life,” Blakeman said in an email.

Blakeman questioned why staff members decided to form a union rather than use what she called “very open” staff grievance discussion processes.

The union’s demands included a standardized pay scale, equitable discipline policy and the right to union representation at any meeting where matters affecting pay, hours, benefits, advancement or layoffs were discussed.

Eric Engle, chairman of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action, said his all-volunteer environmental group would do what it could to fill a “disheartening void” left by the coalition’s dissolution, expressing outrage at the decision to dissolve the organization rather than work cooperatively with the union.

“OVEC has been one of the most effective organizations at providing detailed analyses of issues like the proposed Appalachian Storage Hub and accompanying buildout of oil and gas infrastructure to educate the public in accessible ways,” Engle said in an email.

Muckian-Bates, 31, of Moundsville said he hopes the union’s fight inspires workers at small nonprofits to consider unionizing.

“The fact that OVEC can unilaterally fire individuals for legally protected activities and just dissolve so they don’t have to negotiate a contract with us shows that it doesn’t matter how progressive they claim to be at the end of the day if they have power over our lives and our work, then it’s no different than if you’re working at Toyota or working in the coal mine,” Muckian-Bates said. “It’s the same power dynamic.”