Residents Taking On City Hall

How will Elkins respond?

A showdown of sorts is shaping up at Elkins City Hall, as residents who feel they’ve been ignored by city officials are now threatening to take their complaints to court.

On Thursday, a letter featuring 325 signatures of Elkins residents was presented to Mayor Van Broughton and Elkins City Council.

The letter demands action on the city’s dilapidated properties situation, and the residents have given the city 60 days to respond and show progress on the issue.

If the city does not meet the deadline, the residents say they will file writs of mandamus in circuit court, hoping a judge will then compel the city to do its duty in regard to the properties.

On Thursday, local attorney Ty Nestor, who offered his services for free to draft the letter, mentioned for the first time another possible action residents might take if the deadline isn’t met: “Formally addressing the Municipal Home Rule Board with this concern.”

It will be interesting to see how city officials respond.

For several years, the dilapidated properties issue has been the focus of the Town Hall series of meetings, which are organized by Kathy Vance. Randolph County Commissioner Mark Scott and Elkins City Council member Linda Vest have participated in all of the Town Hall meetings.

However, not many other elected Elkins officials have ever attended a Town Hall meeting. Broughton and Councilwoman Marly Hazen have each taken part in the past, but aside from Vest, that’s been it.

In fact, a city official admitted, as had been rumored, that City Council members were told not to attend the Town Hall meetings.

In a press statement to The Inter-Mountain in March, City Clerk Jessica Sutton wrote, “The reason elected officials have been cautioned against attending recent Town Hall meetings is that while they are placed and held in office by their voting constituents, they are also beholden to federal, state and municipal laws that, amongst other things, demand their actions be accessible and accountable to the public. The West Virginia Open Meetings Act … recognizes two or more members of these organizations as constituting a governing body and a meeting of this body as any gathering during which discussion may lead to an official action. Attendance by elected officials at a public meeting, with the declared purpose of affecting legal and/or procedural change, may result in a violation of the Open Meetings Act.”

Perhaps city officials were concerned about the Open Meetings Act, or maybe they just didn’t want to face withering criticism from frustrated residents.

Elkins Operations Manager Bob Pingley and Phil Isner, Elkins’ code enforcement officer/building inspector, have been the subject of complaints at every Town Hall meeting during the past year. They aren’t elected officials, and aren’t subject to Open Meetings Act restrictions, but neither of them have ever come to one of the Town Hall meetings to meet with residents, either.

Now that the letter has been presented, city officials may decide to remain silent, hoping the controversy will all blow over. This would be an unwise decision, as the group seems determined to file the writs of mandamus if the deadline isn’t met.

Becoming entangled in a court dispute with its residents doesn’t seem like a good P.R. move for the city. And when you consider that only about 600 people voted in the last Elkins city election, ignoring the will of 325 voters would likely result in some Elkins elected officials being voted out of office.

On the other hand, Elkins officials could act in good faith and work with the residents to solve the dilapidated properties problem.

That would seem the best course of action to take, but doing so will require the humbleness to accept criticism and listen to others, and the openness necessary to achieve transparency in local government.

It will be interesting to see if those two qualities — humbleness and openness — are present in City Hall these days.