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Lee Wolverton

Lee Wolverton

Character, the old saw goes, is doing the right thing when no one is looking. This operates on the premise that the temptation to do the wrong thing is greater when no one can see it.

Sensible people should wonder then what West Virginia University, a public institution that gobbles up hundreds of millions of tax dollars each year, might be doing when no one is looking. The Charleston Gazette-Mail, owned by HD Media, publisher of The Herald-Dispatch and seven weeklies, has sued the university over repeated violations of the state’s open-meetings law.

At this writing, the university still is fighting, hurling legal spatter at the walls with little evident concern for what sticks.

Last year, as the pandemic unfolded, members of the university’s Board of Governors met privately to discuss the school’s response. They did the same to consider students’ claims of systemic racism at the university.

To the uninitiated, this might not seem problematic. In fact, it’s not only problematic, it’s a slap in the face to every taxpayer in this state, and if you live here, you’re paying taxes here in some shape, form or fashion, as the state’s chief executive might put it.

Public entities rely on public money and, because they do, they are required under the law to operate in the open, meaning the public gets to watch as deliberations unfold and decisions are made. When WVU’s Board of Governors or its committees meet, they must do so before the eyes of the public. Or at least the law says they must.

Most of the public cannot attend these meetings. That’s where newspapers come in, or, in this case specifically, reporter Ryan Quinn, who raised the concern about WVU. He and other reporters who follow these meetings work not on behalf of companies like ours or editors like the one writing this column. They work on behalf of the public. More to the point, they work on your behalf.

They tell you things you would not know otherwise because you are busy tending to your own affairs, from your job to your family. It’s important that people such as Quinn be able to do their jobs and report to you on the deliberations and decisions of governing bodies across the state.

In other areas of life, taxpayers’ spending decisions are their own. Their choices might be limited depending on their income or lack of it. When bills come due, they have little choice but to pay, or else risk losing the property or service for which their money is owed. But taxpayers, nonetheless, are deciding where to live, which foods to buy, which vehicles to drive and more.

They are not deciding on taxes. Taxes are confiscatory and affect everyone. Income taxes are deducted from paychecks before taxpayers see their money. Sales taxes must be paid or the good or service can’t be purchased. Failing to pay real estate taxes can lead to liens on the owner’s property.

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Because of this, the principle for the public bodies funded with that money is that they must operate transparently, so that elected or politically appointed officials responsible for leading these entities can be held accountable for their actions.

That is why open-meetings law exists. Provisions are included in the law to allow for private, closed-door meetings in necessary circumstances, such as to discuss an individual personnel matter — an employee being disciplined, for example — or pending litigation.

These exemptions are few and narrow in scope, so that the meaning, importance and spirit of open-meetings law cannot be usurped.

But that is precisely what members of WVU’s Board of Governors did in repeated instances last year. Further, when the newspaper stood up and called out the university for this, the school did not admit its wrong but, to borrow from modern parlance, doubled down on it, contesting the claims in court.

Lack of transparency is among the criticisms that resulted in the faculty senate’s recent consideration of a vote of no confidence in the administration of school President Gordon Gee and Provost Maryanne Reed. The faculty’s beefs and our own are separate matters. But both point to an audacious air at the state’s flagship university.

An unmistakable impression forms that West Virginia University under its current leadership thinks itself above rules that apply to others. Tap any public university administrator on the knee and, along with a swinging leg, will come the reflex response that state subsidies are insufficient to meet the school’s needs. That’s because universities spend money like drunken sailors fresh off a long run at sea.

Tax money still flows to public universities in gushers, from direct state subsidies to federal grants, but it’s hardly enough to keep pace, so schools fund-raise with the vigilance of televangelists and behave as though they are entitled to operate in the dark.

If West Virginia University does not want to be accountable to the taxpayers of this state, if it wants to work in secret, then it has the option to go private and decline state tax money. Otherwise, the school is legally required to be transparent to the people of West Virginia and the rest of the world.

That remaining to be the case, two central questions remain: What exactly are officials doing behind those closed doors, and why is WVU’s leadership so hell-bent on no one watching?

Lee Wolverton is the vice president of news and executive editor of HD Media. He can be reached at 304-348-4802 or lwolverton@hdmedia

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