Meeting room rules get the OK

3-2 vote allows political parties to use county space

CHARLES TOWN – In a 3-2 vote, the Jefferson County Commission decided to amend its meeting room use policy to allow for state-recognized political parties to hold closed-door meetings.

[cleeng_content id="993362595" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Proponents of the policy change argued that the use of public facilities by political parties for private meetings is analogous to the well-established use of rooms at the Legislature for caucus meetings. Opponents argued that allowing political parties to hold private meetings in public facilities funded with taxpayer dollars is improper.

The decision follows a dispute between the Jefferson County Democratic Association and a dozen local tea party members. Those members attended a JCDA meeting, which its organizers say was a private strategy session for Democratic candidates, and were asked to leave when it was discovered that they were not registered Democrats.

Dale Manuel

Dale Manuel

The amendment to the policy – authored by Commission President Dale Manuel, a Democrat – grants political parties who have gained recognition from the Secretary of State to hold private meetings in the commission’s room. Currently, only the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian and Mountain Parties have such recognition.

Commissioner Jane Tabb, a Republican, argued against the proposed policy change.

“I feel very strongly that public buildings that groups use should be open to the public, and I do not think an exception should be made for political parties that want to have closed meetings,” she said. “I feel that if they want to have a closed meeting for strategic purposes … they need to find another venue. Taxpayer money is involved here.”

Manuel disagreed, arguing that it is not problematic for government funds to be used to provide facilities for private meetings.

“Those are taxpayers’ dollars that pay for the state Capitol and pay for the U.S. Capitol,” he said. “We do have a more productive government, I feel, when we do have those caucuses.”

Manuel accused the Tea Party of attempting to introduce partisanship into county government.

“For years in this county, we have not had a problem, but all of a sudden these theatrics have happened,” he said. “I believe there is a wedge trying to be inserted into the County Commission, and trying to make it a partisan group. I don’t want to do that. Let’s just put into code what we’ve been doing for over 15 to 20 years.”

Manuel said some of the Tea Party members have expressed interest in running for office in 2014. He said it would grant them an unfair advantage to allow them to stay for a strategy session, a situation he likened to one high school football coach being allowed to sit in while an opposing team’s game plan was being developed.

“You have to look at the specific meeting we were talking about, because we were looking at specific strategies for Democrats to run for office,” he said.

Republican Commissioner Walt Pellish opposed the policy, arguing that allowing partisan parties to have private use of the room would “contaminate” its purpose.

“I feel very strongly against changing the policy to allow for political parties to use it, even though I know we’ve done it in the past,” he said. “This is a public meeting room. It costs the taxpayers money to open it up and set it up … If we are going to have a meeting here, it ought to be public.”

Pellish said it had been wrong for Delegate Stephen Skinner and Manuel to ask the Tea Party members to leave the meeting, pointing out that the meeting’s announcement had not included the fact that it would be private. He said he felt the Tea Party members were owed an apology.

“I think their rights were violated,” Pellish said. “They had a right to be here for this meeting.”

Democratic Commissioner Patsy Noland seconded Manuel’s view that the underlying incident was political theater.

“This thing has been played way bigger than it should have been,” Noland said. “Executive committees meet in executive session, and there is nothing wrong with that.”

“The whole thing, in my opinion, was politically motivated in the very beginning,” Noland said. “This is a 100 percent political issue … I don’t think it has any business in front of this commission.”

Noland said she was initially reluctant to change the policy, but agreed to support it after Commissioner Lyn Widmyer amended it to require that parties holding closed meetings advertise the fact that they are closed beforehand.

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