Joint committee recommends proposal

CHARLESTON — A legislative interim committee recommended a bill to lawmakers Tuesday for a new agency to oversee policy planning for state emergency responses.

The Joint Select Committee on Flooding met Tuesday on the last day of January legislative interim meetings before the start of the 2020 regular session later today.

Brian Casto, counsel for the committee, presented draft legislation creating the State Resiliency and Flood Protection Plan Act. The bill would create the State Resiliency Office, a new agency that would answer directly to the Governor’s Office and provide coordinated emergency and disaster planning, response to emergencies, and recovery after a disaster has occurred.

The new office, through its state resiliency officer, would work with state agencies to ensure that parts of the state hit with natural disaster and man-made emergencies can bounce back quickly. It would also manage non-federal disaster and hazard mitigation grant funding.

An advisory board would assist the state resiliency officer, consisting of four legislators from the House of Delegates and state Senate as well as a representative from the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Division of Natural Resources, the Department of Environmental Protection, the State Conservation Agency, the West Virginia Emergency Management Council, the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, the Department of Transportation, the West Virginia National Guard, and the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The bill was first presented to the joint committee in December, but Casto said the bill went through some changes since then due to concerns from executive branch agencies that the resiliency office appeared to have too much authority over state agencies.

“After meeting with executive branch agencies, the stakeholders, and hearing input from others, the bill has been significantly revised in some form,” Casto said. “That language was changed…to ensure that the State Resiliency Office was not seen as some sort of super-secretary or oversight office that could call upon their services without limit.”

The legislation comes after a year of debate within emergency services circles about the structure of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in the wake of the 2016 flooding that struck multiple counties in West Virginia.

The division, first created in 2005 by former governor Joe Manchin, has come under fire the last two years over its handling of grants. The Federal Emergency Management Agency placed the state on manual reimbursement due to the lack of oversight of grant sub-recipients by former division director Jimmy Gianato. The penalty, uncovered by legislative auditors over a year ago, caused delays in how quickly the state could draw down money from FEMA’s public assistance and hazard mitigation grant programs.

In the wake of that scandal, DHSEM was put under the umbrella of the National Guard and Michael Todorovich, a retired National Guard colonel and former deputy director for the division, was named director.

The Governor’s Office wanted to give permanent oversight of the division to the West Virginia National Guard and take the guard from underneath the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety and make it a cabinet-level position. That idea did not sit well with county emergency officials.

The State Resiliency and Flood Protection Plan Act was approved by the joint committee which recommended the bill to the Legislature, but not before being amended. One of the amendments would require the advisory board for the State Resiliency Office be subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act and the Open Governmental Meetings Act.

State Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, wondered why the proposed agency would be exempt from FOIA or the open meetings law when they could easily go into executive session to discuss sensitive matters.