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A question of gender bias

It is a question I never believed I would have to ponder: How real a phenomenon is gender bias in politics in West Virginia’s towns and cities? As a former mayor of Beverly — and only the second female in the town’s history to serve as such — my experience suggests that it might be a question that needs asked in Randolph County.

A recent analysis conducted by Georgetown University and published in the Chicago Tribune in April 2019 contends that, “Women tend to be evaluated differently than men when engaging in typical political behavior.”

Using data from the University of Chicago-based General Social Survey, the study found that “biases and gender stereotypes remain, especially when it comes to how women are perceived in positions of power,” according to the report’s author Nicole Smith, research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

Such findings have me also asking local and county officials to take a closer look as to whether they are unwittingly contributing to a discriminatory environment.

“Hey Girl!” was how an elected county official chose to greet me for nearly the entire first year of my term — in front of a packed conference room during meetings — at great expense to my dignity. I insist that our rapport suffered for that fact, as it eventually grew into an issue of trust between our differing genders.

Ending on June 30, 2019, my two year term under the Strong Council/Weak Mayor system saw a progressive level of improvement projects completed, forgivable loans earned, a land use planning award received, and the implementation of both the Town of Beverly’s Comprehensive Plan and the adoption by ordinance of the 2015 International Property Maintenance Code. And still, public documents show that I was treated differently than both the male mayor that preceded me and the one elected after I chose not to run for reelection in the town’s last municipal election.

During his five terms as mayor from 2007-2017, David Harper received for the position of Chairperson of the Utility Board over and above the $2,600 annual mayor’s pay the same monthly paycheck earned by his predecessor, Donald Goldizen. No motion or vote by Council for this pay can be found in the meeting minutes.

After I left office, the new mayor, Andy Burns, was approved by Town Council at the July 8, 2019, council meeting in an informal agreement that did not include a motion or vote, either, to begin immediately receiving the monthly Chairperson pay, as well.

Sandwiched in between these two male mayors, I took office on July 1, 2017, without automatically receiving the same pay as Chairperson as did my male predecessor and successor. I conducted my duties with no compensation for eight months and was required to place the topic on the Town Council agenda at the February 26, 2018, meeting to request that I, too, be paid the additional compensation, besides my annual mayor pay of $3,800.

Council unanimously approved the request — paying me retroactively to my starting date — but the action required a motion and a vote to transpire in reaching that decision.

Meeting minutes indicate that “Attorney [Robert] Chenoweth will be contacted” before I could collect the pay, and I was told that I would be required to fill out a timesheet — an accounting not required of Harper – that would be “shown to Town Council.”

More than just differential treatment regarding pay approval, I also felt the sand shift under the base of my supervisory duties, where neither Harper nor Burns experienced such confusion.

The current Employee Policy Manual created by the Personnel Committee and signed off on by all employees – and the one in place while I was mayor – shows the Water and Sanitary Plant Chief Operators, the Maintenance and Distribution workers, and the Town Clerk as required to “directly report to the mayor” in daily operations and in certain matters of supervision.

Yet, after the reorganization of the two utility boards in early 2019 due to their improperly acting as conjoined against Municipal Bond regulations — an act that inspired a board member to say about me during a board meeting, “[she] should have kept her mouth shut,” and that I needed to stop “digging, digging, digging” — Town Council tabled for five months either reestablishing or approving the current status of the Personnel Committee made up of council and board members with the mayor as chairperson.

May 13, 2019, Council meeting minutes show their intention was to “table the discussion until the new council was sworn in” to conduct employee reviews sanctioned in the employee manual to be held in June before I left office.

And again, at my last meeting as mayor on June 26, 2019, Council “agreed to wait till the new administration took over on July 1” and not allow me to participate as part of the Personnel Committee in the overdue employee reviews after I had organized and participated in those conducted in 2018.

Heated debate over the issue resulted in the arrest of my husband, David Karelis, for simple battery after a physical altercation with a town resident occurred. At a pre-trial hearing on February 4, 2020, all charges against Mr. Karelis were dismissed at the request of the Prosecuting Attorney’s office.

At his first regular meeting on July 8, 2019, Mayor Burns sought clarification as to whether Council desired for him to act as supervisor over the workers, as was stipulated in the same exact employee manual in effect during my administration.

Council confirmed that the mayor was to be the supervisor — after having stalled only weeks before my sanctioned role in that position — and the overdue employee evaluations commenced during Mayor Burns’ first week in office.

Town Council and the Utility Boards’ meeting minutes are public documents and can be accessed at townofbeverly.com or by visiting town hall.

— This op-ed piece was written by Cynthia Karelis, a former mayor of Beverly.

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