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March 7, 2018     Spirit of Jefferson Farmers Advocate
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PAGE A6 Wednesda~ March 7, 2018 NEWS SPIRIT of JEFFERSON and FARMER'S ADVOCATE WEST VIRGINIA LEGISLATURE By JAKE ZUCKERMAN Charleston Gazette-Mail CHARLESTON - A Senate fi- nance attorney with a history of eth- " ics violations testified in support of a bill before the Senate Education Committee last week, in apparent defiance of Senate rules. That bill, which would establish a magnet school program for cer- tain West Virginian high school stu- dents, passed out of the full Senate Feb. 27 on a 32-1 vote. Rob Capehart, counsel for the Sen- ate Finance Committee, testified Feb. 21 to the Senate Education Commit- tee in support of Senate Bill 507. Senate Rule 55, which covers who can work to influence,the votes Of senators on pending legislation, says, "No employee of the Senate shall, at any time, engage in such ac- tivity, under penalty of immediate dis- missal by the Com- mittee on Rules." The minutes of the meeting show that Hank Hager, a Senate Education attorney, presented the bill. Preseriting Rob Capehart legislation usually includes stating the sections of state code the bill af- fects, and translating the legal lan- guage into a more palatable form for the legislators -- not making statements of opinion. According to the minutes, Hager "explained the purpose of the bill and responded to questions from the committee." Capehart testified on behalf the bill, making subjective statements supporting its passage -- a role usu- ally reserved for policy experts or stakeholders. He identified himself as former president of West Liberty Univer- sity, which oversaw a similar pro- gram in the state's Northern Pan- handle, and gave a PowerPoint pre- sentation titled "Helping Our Kids Win the Race!" Capehart resigned as West Liberty president in March 2015 in the midst of an ethics scandal and a no-confi- dence vote from the school's faculty senate. A few months later, the state Ethics Commission ordered him to pay a $10,000 penalty. Later in an interview when asked about the appearance, Capehart said he presented the bill to the commit- tee, but didn't testify in support of it. When he appeared in front of the Senate Education Committee, Cape- hart "addressed the committee and responded to questions." When asked why the Senate Fi- nance Committee's attorney was preparing and presenting an edu- cation bill, Senate President Mitch Carmichael said Capehart was not advocating for it, only presenting it. "We work together as a team, somebody is not allocated specifi- cally to one committee or anoth- er. He had an interest in that, we thought that he could be an asset for that issue and we asked him to put it together," Carmichael said. The legislation itself would allow high-achieving high school students to attend magnet schools at certain four-year colleges with accelerated curricula. It would call for the gov- ernor to appoint five trustees, sub- ject to confirmation by the Senate and appoint a president to act as the school's CEO, who is not subject to Senate approval. Capehart, also a former state tax commissioner, state Republican Party chairman and Republican can- didate for governor, started working for the Senate in November. In 2015, Capehart entered into a conciliation agreement with the state Ethics Commission, admitting to one of 13 charges filed against him, all centered on using employ- ees and resources of using WLU while he served as its president to bolster his private film company. "I admit and acknowledge that I violated the West Virginia Govern- mental Ethics Act by soliciting pri- vate business from a subordinate public employee whom I had the au- thority to direct, supervise and con- trol, in violation of West Virginia Code," Capehart wrote and signed in the agreement. Onoszko FROM PAGE A1 ficially authorized. While no record of a vote by the com- mission has been uncovered, Onoszko now says the accep- tance of the plaque by for- mer Commissioner Garland new three-member Repub- lican voting bloc following the electoral victo- ries later that year of Republicans Josh Compton and Ca- leb Wayne Hudson, both of them politi- cal newcomers who toppled incumbents to win their seats. The first half and then some of Onoszko's 2-1/2-year term has been a contentious one at times as the new majority's votes marginalized veteran commissioners Jane Tabb, a ili:, Republican, and Patsy No- i: land, the commission's only IC Democrat. Last year, Ono- " szko, Compton and Hudson overruled Tabb and Noland's opposition to cutting $5 from Moore was that of- ficial authorization -- and that's good enough for him. "He was that au- thorized person to accept the plaque," 201 8 Onoszko said."Stuff was done differently then than it's done now and that plaque isn't going any- where as long as we three are on the commission." The commission has not split on every decision. All five members voted against increasing the county's trans- fer tax, even though the tax is being used as a campaign is- sue against Tabb. One-third of the tax raised by home the three-year old county- sales in the county helps fund wide ambulance fee and to- the county's farmland protec- gether the trio brushed aside tion program. i their warnings against allow- Also, the commission has !ng the city of Charles Town united in its opposition to a proposal by Charles Town to annex about 2,600 acres in the county and all five voted to approve hiring Nic Diehl to head up the county's eco- nomic development author- ity. Onoszko said he was very happy that the commission was able to offer the job to Diehl, who has worked with both WorkForce West Vir- ginia and the Business and Industrial Development di- Jefferson County Commissioner Peter Onoszko offers a primer on local government to eighth- grade students in teacher Betsy Sloan's social studies class at Wildwood Middle School in October. A Republican, Onoszko was appointed to fill out the term of former Comissioner Eric Bell in 2016 following two unsuccessful attempts at elected office. He will face off against Gary W. Cogle in this year's Republican primary. to acquire the county's 30- year-old public sewer utility and against appointing long- time opponents of the Public Service District to its board " of directors. Onoszko also backed Compton in spend- ing nearly $15,000 to hire an Ohio-based company to au- dit the PSD over the objec- who called an audit a waste of time and money. In an email, Onoszko said the effort to dissolve the PSD is the work he's most proud of since coming on the com- mission. "From my perspective and that of many other county res- tions of Tabb and Noland, '~ room as he labored to finish reading a prepared statement about an ongoing employee discrimination complaint. In both instances, the speakers' time had expired. And Onoszko has some- times sparred sharply with Noland, most notably after Compton tried to have for- mer PSD board president Bill Strider removed only months before" his term was set to expire on the grounds that he was not a District cus- szko retired from the Defense Department in 1995 and ad- mitted to being largely apo- litical before the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. In 2009, he joined the Republican Executive Com- mittee, and in 2012, Onoszko ran unsuccessfully for coun- ty magistrate then mounted a race for county commis- sion in 2013, attending all but three meetings, before falling to Bell in the primary. The more-than $100,000 arate fee is unpopular with many residentsl "People have said they don't mind a high- er tax as long as it comes out of the general revenue fund, but they don't want to pay a fee ." While the PSD auditor, Perry & Associates, conclud- ed that no irregulars were un- covered in the utility's oper- ations, Onoszko remains un- convinced. He said the au- dit's conclusions raised more questions than answers, in his "1 hope to have demonstrated that l do believe in civil discourse and can idents, the position taken by myself andthoseothercom- ,parate, in my mind, the person from om St i nerssth Staendpl ym; the ssue at hand. If as a people we can't servi e to t.e eo ,e we a,e thi elected to serve," he said. do s, we face a very difficult future." i PETER ONOSZKO, Jefferson County Commissioner ! ,*',', Onoszko acknowledged the division on the commis- sion between the new mem- bers and Tabb and Noland, but said it's because the new three-member majority has a direction it wants to see the county go in. "To continue on the path upon which the majority on the county commission have embarked, that edge has to be maintained as a minimum," vision of the state Economic Development Office and was also the principal architect of the Martinsburg Air Show. Possessing a wry sense of humor and well-read, Onosz- ko calls himself a student of 17th-century English histo- ry and peppers his comments with arcane historical refer- ences -- he likened his ap- pointment to the commission after twice losing at the ballot box to a speech British Prime Minister Winton Churchill gave to Congress in 1941. But in his first year, Onosz- ko has also at times shown a penchant for imperiousness: during a public hearing on the Confederate plaque, Onosz- ko sought to remove a wom- an from the meeting room as she tried to remind the com- mission that the hearing was occurring on the same day that the county's most prom- inent civil rights activist, James Tolbert, who had died days earlier, was being eu- logized only a block away. Ironically, weeks earlier, On- oszko threatened to remove Tolbert from the commission Onoszko said. "In short, I say to the people of the coun- ty, 'If you like the direction we have taken and want it to continue, I need your vote.'" The trio also clashed with ' Tabb and Noland over a re- quest to remove a plaque honoring Confederate sol- diers that is mounted to the front of the Jefferson County Courthouse. Both Tabb and Noland initially opposed re- locating it, but both eventu- ally called for it to be taken down, which led to Onoszko authoring a resolution that he got the West Virginia Liberty Political Action Committee to present to keep the plaque in place. Onoszko had earlier pledged to agree to taking the plaque down if no record could be found of its being of- tomer: Onoszko sided with Compton in favor of remov- ing Strider and informed No- land -- ahead of the vote -- that he was right and she was wrong because he had the three votes to oust Strider from the board. Onoszko and Compton backed down after the PSD threatened to sue the commission and five months later Onoszko supported the appointment of a Charles Town utility customer to the PSD board. Still, Onoszko said he is a big believer in maintaining civility, even in the midst of strong disagreement. "! hope to have demonstrat- ed that I do believe in civil discourse and can separate, in my mind; the person from the issue at hand," Onoszko wrote in an earlier email. "If as a people we can't do this, we face a very difficult future." A relative newcomer to Jef- ferson County, Onoszko, 68, moved here in 2005 from Oakton, Va and began get- ting involved in local poli- tics shortly thereafter. A 25- year military veteran, Ono- lost to emergency services as a result of the ambulance fee cut was supplemented with an appropriation from the county's general revenue fund, compelling Onoszko to spearhead restructuring how the fee is paid by non-resi- dential customers, based on square footage and type of business. Under Onoszko's proposal, large businesses in the county would see sizable increases to their fee rate and the county would also charge schools and health care facili- ties for the service. Onoszko said it's unreal- istic to make the residential rate higher and both he and Hudson have gone on record saying they want the more than $3 million for emergen- ' cy services to be fully funded from general revenue. "Businesses can write off the ambulance fee as a busi- ness expense but happy hom- eowner can't do that," Ono- szko said. "Residences are where the votes are; it would be extremely unpopular to (charge them more)." He said the idea of a sep- mind. "Yes, there was nothing le- gally wrong," he said. "But if you believe the PSD ex- ists to serve the ratepayers, there could be an irresponsi- ble stewardship of funds." The auditor is expected to review its findings with the commission on March 29. The county commission has spent the last few weeks preparing next year's budget and Onoszko said he's com- mitted to making county gov- ernment run as efficiently as possible. While the continu- ing slide in gaming revenue and sluggish growth last year have meant that many spend- ing requests will go unfilled, Onoszko said in future years he wants county offices and departments to begin utiliz- ing what he calls "productiv- ity scales" in order to know best where resources should be allocated. "This becomes critical as our tax base fluctuates with the hoped-for growth on the one hand and declining rev- enues from the casino on the other," Onoszko said. "When department heads present their budget requests to the JCC as they have just done, there is no objective way for the JCC to evaluate said re- quests. I'd like to see the JCC look into some system- atic way of doing that and we my have to hire consultants to assist us." Onoszko said cuts to some county departments could take the form of reallocating resources from one office to another, depending on where there might be surpluses or where there might be unmet needs. He said he would also like to play a role in helping to ease traffic congestion on U.S. 340 at the Shenandoah and Potomac river bridges into Virginia and Maryland. He said he'd like to explore building a bypass around Bo- livar and Harpers Ferry. "The growing conges- tion over the bridges needs to be addressed and I think the JCC ought to take the lead in directing the :think- ing of both the state*: and federal transportation de- partments. Since the bypass would involve at least two, if not three, states, the leg- islative delegations at both levels would have to get in- volved," he said, adding that the amount of funding for a project of that scale might best be served by a public- private partnership. Despite having a diffi- cult time on the ballot and a bumpy first year, Onosz- ko appears to have won over many Republican voters. On Onoszko's Facebook cam- paign page, the former head of the county's Republican executive committee said Onoszko has made a big dif- ference during his time on the commission. "Commis- sioner Onoszko has done more to benefit a wider vari- ety of Jefferson County citi- zens than any commission- er I have witnessed in my 28+ years of residing in this county," wrote Mike Ashley, a Breckenridge Estates resi- dent and PSD customer who has supported the dissolution of the utility. But some of the contro- versial decisions by Onosz- ko and his Republican col- leagues -- the vote to cut the ambulance fee has been widely panned -- have pro- duced challengers from both parties. Gary Cogle Jr a life- long resident of Jefferson County who works as a legis- lative liaison in the state au- ditor's office, will challenge Onoszko in the May Repub- lican primary. A onetime in- dependent, Cogle was one of the candidates who sought appointment to the com- mission after Bell resigned. He changed his party affili- ation to Republican in July 2016. Meanwhile, Demo- crats Ralph Lorenzetti, a for- mer county prosecutor, and Greg Lance, who has served as both mayor of Ranson and as a member of the county commission, will face off in the Democratic primary this spring.