The Voice of West Virginia
The House of Delegates is describing a trimmed-down version of the intermediate court of appeals, reducing the number of districts and also cutting the estimated cost.
The issue has been promoted for years in West Virginia and was among the recommendations of a 2009 judicial reform panel established by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat.
The state Senate’s Republican majority in recent years has championed the cause, but support in the House has been less certain. The Senate has pushed the bill several years recently, including last year.
The Senate passed the bill this year on Feb. 24, leading now to House consideration.
A major change the House already made today as the bill was being discussed in House Judiciary Committee was to trim the number of districts from two — likely north and south as originally proposed by the Senate — to just one.
The estimated cost to establish the intermediate court for 2023 was almost $7.9 million for the Senate bill. The House bill trims that to $3.6 million.
Every year after that, Senate version would be about $5.7 million. The bill under consideration by the House would have an estimated continuing cost of $2.1 million.
Senate Bill 275 would establish an intermediate court to review civil cases between the circuit court and Supreme Court levels. It would also review issues such as workers compensation cases and final orders from family court.
The three judges on the intermediate court would receive appointments to staggered terms to fill out the court at first, with regular elections for 10-year terms after that. The judges would make $142,000 a year. Proceedings are anticipated to take place in already-available public buildings.
A public hearing this morning before the House Judiciary Committee included arguments for and against the court.
Attorney Danielle Waltz, representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued the midlevel court would provide a more stable, predictable legal climate.
“It’s time to continue to pass policies to let the world know West Virginia is open for business,” she said. “It is time to let the world know that West Virginia wants plaintiffs and defendants, individuals and businesses, to have a fair shake. It is time to let the world know that if they want to move West Virginia, they can discover a fair and predictable legal climate.”
Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, agreed.
“It’s time for West Virginia to join 41 other states who have some version of an intermediate court of appeals,” McPhail said.
Others contended the current judicial system is efficient in reviewing cases and that another level would produce delays.
“I am hearing over and over about bills that are created to fix a problem that I’m not sure exists,” said Jean Evansmore with the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign. “Please, if it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it. Use this thing called a brain.”
ACLU West Virginia Executive Director Joseph Cohen said the organization normally would favor additional judicial review. But he said this bill is flawed because it doesn’t provide for additional review of criminal cases.
“Criminal defendants have so much more to lose than civil defendants,” he said.
Samuel White, legal services coordinator for the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the midlevel court’s review of final orders in family court could produce unbearable delays, particularly for victims of domestic violence.
Rich Holtzapfel, a lawyer in Putnam County, said he has long considered himself a Republican. He said an intermediate court wouldn’t be worth the cost.
“I think the numbers just don’t justify it,” he said. “I would never hire someone to help my son mow the yard if he was doing just fine and didn’t need the help.
“Let’s not be RINOs. Let’s be responsible. Let’s not expand our government.”
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Dan Stratford waited 13 months to lead his alma mater onto the soccer field but needed just four minutes to see his Mountaineers score their first goal of the season. West Virginia defeated Charlotte, 3-0 Friday night in Stratford’s first match as head coach.
“I feel like it was just what the guys needed after such a long break,” Stratford said. “I think we all forgot what the feeling was like to play a tough road game and get a really good win, and that feeling in the locker room afterwards. It definitely made for an easy ride home, for sure. That gave us a lot of confidence but also a good platform to build on.”
WVU received all the offense they needed when Tony Pineda found the back of the net in the fourth minute. Pineda later netted a second goal and Bjarne Thiesen scored late in the half. The Mountaineers won despite being outshot 16-5.
“While we didn’t create a great deal of chances, the quality of the chances we created were fantastic,” Stratford said. “We executed incredibly well in those moments. When you can put high-percentage opportunities in front of players, that’s obviously going to increase the likelihood that we can convert them.”
Four West Virginia natives are featured on Stratford’s first roster at WVU. Fairmont Senior graduate Ike Swiger was in the starting eleven for the Charlotte match and Morgantown graduate Elijah Borneo had an assist.
“I have known those guys for a long time. There is technical quality and great athleticism. We continue to work hard with both of them to help them improve in terms of what we are doing tactically.
“Sam Morgan (Charles Town) and JoJo Biafora (University H.S.) both contributed off the bench for us as well. So to have four kids from West Virginia that know what it means to represent the university and are very proud, we want them to be leaders within this group and reinforce that message to international players and out-of-state players and fully value what it means to represent this university.”
In a normal year, the six-team Mid-American Conference season consists of a five-match regular season and a conference tournament. This year, a ten-match double round robin setup sees each team host and visit all other league squads. No conference tournament is planned.
“With a smaller pool of teams within the conference, only playing five games would perhaps not be a fair reflection of who the strongest team is. So now we have ten conference games and we tend to believe that the best team will rise to the top at the end of it.”
Wrestlers head to Big 12 Championships in Tulsa
Four WVU wrestlers have been seeded for the Big 12 Championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma this weekend. Killian Cardinale is seeded fourth at 125 pounds. Ryan Sullivan is the No. 2 seed at 133. Oak Glen High School graduate Peyton Hall is the No. 2 seed at 165 pounds and defending league champion Noah Adams is the No. 3 seed at 197 pounds.
All of those wrestlers are likely ticketed for the NCAA Championships in St. Louis. Head coach Tim Flynn is hopeful other wrestlers can qualify through their performances at the Big 12 tourney.
“Hopefully it is ten,” Flynn said. “Really all of our guys have shown some promise. They all have shown signs that they can compete at a high level. If we can get them to do that this weekend, we will have more than that ‘four’ number.”
The Mountaineers went 7-3 in the dual meet season, their best mark in Flynn’s third season as head coach.
“As a team, we have certainly taken a step up. Now, I think this lets each individual know where they stand. This is not only a team sport but obviously you can go out and win an individual Big 12 championship as well.”
Adams, an Independence High School graduate, is seeded third in the Big 12 tournament. Adams saw his 39-match win streak ended last month by Wyoming’s Steven Buchanan, who is seeded No. 2.
“The kid who is the top seed (South Dakota State’s Tanner Sloan), Noah beat him in the Big 12 final last year,” Flynn said. “He is a really solid guy. We had some wars with Buchanan and with (Jake) Woodley. And the (A.J.) Ferrari kid is solid. It is a really deep weight class. Noah has ramped it up a notch. So I am hoping we will have a really great showing. And I think we will.”
Women’s soccer returns for four-match spring slate
After going 7-2 and finishing second in the Big 12 Conference season in the fall, Nikki Izzo-Brown’s 25th season will continue into the spring. The Mountaineers, ranked seventh in the national coaches poll, will play four official matches in the spring, starting at St. Joseph’s Sunday afternoon. WVU will also host Duke and play a home-and-home series with Virginia. The NCAA Tournament is scheduled to begin in mid-April.
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The Ohio River has crested and the levels at Point Pleasant and Huntington should now start to drop, relieving pressure on the Mud and Guyandotte Rivers, and other tributaries which have backed up and flooded several homes and businesses in the watershed. Governor Justice has declared a State of Emergency for 18 counties over the flooding. The Governor has also changed parameters for priority in the Covid 19 vaccinations. Mayors across the nation–and in West Virginia urge Congress to act on the most recent pandemic relief package. In Sports, WVU takes on TCU in Morgantown tonight. Those stories and more in today’s MetroNews This Morning podcast.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Two West Virginia mayors are urging Congress to pass the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, with both officials warning of constraints on municipal budgets related to the pandemic and response efforts.
Huntington Mayor Steve Williams and Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott participated in a press call Wednesday about the American Rescue Plan Act and how local governments have handled the virus.
“We’re at a critical point right now against this pandemic, building back from the lingering effect that this health and economic crisis is going to have on our communities,” Williams said. “Our fear is that this is going to last much longer.”
The relief package comes as the United States approaches one year of responding to the pandemic. The measure includes $1,400 payments to Americans, in which the White House has agreed to phase out checks starting at $80,000 for individuals, $120,000 for heads of households, and $160,000 for joint tax filers. The proposal also dedicates funding for an additional $400 unemployment payment as well as $160 billion for coronavirus response and vaccination efforts, $10 billion for manufacturing pandemic supplies, and $130 billion for reopening schools.
Local, tribal and state governments would receive $350 billion for addressing the pandemic and its effects, including lost revenue; according to the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee, West Virginia would receive nearly $1.3 billion, and the state’s municipal governments would get more than $676 million.
The West Virginia Auditor’s Office reports the state has yet to spend $660 million of federal CARES Act funding as of Tuesday.
The legislation also includes raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, although the Senate Parliamentarian ruled last week keeping the provision would violate Senate rules.
The House passed the package last Saturday in a 219-212 vote; West Virginia’s representatives — David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Carol Miller — voted against the measure as Republicans voiced concerns about spending they argue is unrelated to the pandemic.
“If Congress had focused on providing targeted relief such as individual stimulus checks, funding for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing and distribution, funding for mental health and substance abuse services, and additional funding to help safely reopen America’s schools, it would have passed with broad Republican support,” McKinley said following the vote.
Williams noted Huntington’s budget was “healthy” ahead of the pandemic. As the pandemic response continued, city officials approved a freeze on capital spending to keep essential employees and maintain city services.
“That is the greatest fear that we have is to furlough or to lay off anyone for a few weeks,” he said. “That interrupts services that we’re providing.”
Williams is a member of the United States Conference of Mayors, an organization supporting the bill. Williams cited conversations with other city leaders who have dealt with terminating employees and reducing services because of the pandemic’s financial strain.
“These are things that individuals living in their homes in the neighborhoods can’t do without,” he said. “These are every bit as essential workers as the front-line individuals in hospitals, and that’s the very reason why local governments and state governments need to receive robust funding.”
Elliott urged Congress to approve the relief bill “as swiftly as possible.”
“This should not be a partisan debate,” he said. “This should not be something where we really don’t take every step to get this done as quickly as possible because our communities are hurting.”
Wheeling is — as Elliott described — the “prototypical Rust Belt community;” the Northern Panhandle city was dealing with declining economic activity and a decreasing population prior to the pandemic, as well as a loss of resources. Elliott noted the September 2019 closure of the Ohio Valley Medical Center during the call in addition to the related health and economic effects.
“We’ve tried to do what we can within our budgetary constraints to help, but we need more assistance right now,” he said. “This is definitely not the time you want to do anything but go big.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., opposes the measure; she has said the next round of coronavirus relief needs to be aimed at individuals and parties most in need of financial assistance, especially because Congress approved a $900 billion relief package in late December.
“We don’t disagree on the need for continued relief and resources, but it needs to be done in a targeted way,” she said Tuesday on the Senate floor.
Capito and nine Republican colleagues pitched a $618 billion plan during a meeting last month with President Joe Biden; the GOP proposal features $1,000 relief payments, a $300 enhanced unemployment payment and no funding for local and state governments.
The Senate is scheduled to vote Thursday on proceeding with the American Rescue Plan Act. Lawmakers have cited March 13 as the deadline to pass a plan as extended unemployment benefits will expire that day if legislators do not act.
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The pandemic has impacted West Virginia’s nursing homes harder than any other sector. West Virginia AARP reports that nearly 700 of the over 2,300 deaths were long-term care residents and staff.
The West Virginia Legislature is now considering whether those nursing homes, as well as every other health care provider and business in the state, should be protected from lawsuits because of the pandemic.
The Senate has already passed SB 277. The bill provides blanket immunity for any claim against “any person, essential business, health care facility, health care provider, first responder or volunteer for loss, damage, physical injury or death arising from COVID-19, COVID-19 care, or impacted care.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charlie Trump (R, Morgan) argued the protection is necessary. “This is a global pandemic, and it requires extraordinary measures and responses in a lot of different ways,” Trump said.
Not everyone agrees.
AARP State Director Gaylene Miller said in a letter to House of Delegates leaders that while “many facilities performed admirably under tough conditions, it is clear other facilities endangered their residents, including some that had long-term understaffing problems and lack of infection control prior to the pandemic,” Miller wrote. “Those facilities should not escape culpability for harming their residents.”
This debate is occurring across the country. Most states have adopted some form of liability protection, but they often leave an option for litigation for the most serious cases. The American Bar Association Journal reported a few months ago that courts are going to be in a difficult position.
“They will have to decide whether and how to apportion responsibility for deaths of the nation’s most medically vulnerable population among long-term care operators who were scrambling in the midst of the chaos and confusion during the worst public health emergency in the century,” ABA Journal reported.
Lawyers are already pursing COVID-19-related suits across the country. According to a litigation tracker by the law firm of Hunton Andrews Kurth, over 8,800 COVID-19-related complaints have been filed, including six in West Virginia, and there will be more to come.
Successful mass litigation could devastate elder care in this country. Each death is a personal tragedy, but not every death was the result of someone’s negligence. The novel virus raged out of control for months, health advisories shifted, personal protective gear was in short supply.
SB 277 as it came out of the Senate, with its wholesale blanket immunity, is too broad. The House needs to find some way to allow for litigation where there are instances of intentional misconduct, but not create legal problems for nursing homes and other businesses that did the best they could during an unprecedented event.
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FAIRMONT, W.Va. — It remains to be seen just how much of an impact Meredith Maier makes at Fairmont Senior.
But Maier, a transfer from Grafton, could have hardly made a better impression in her Polar Bears’ debut Tuesday against Bridgeport at the Fairmont Senior Field House.
The junior, who earned Class AA third-team all-state honors with the Bearcats last season, scored 31 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to key FSHS to an 86-59 win over Bridgeport on the opening night in girls basketball across the state.
“What she does is take a lot of the pressure off (returning all-state guard Marley Washenitz),” Polar Bears’ coach Corey Hines said. “Marley still handles it and she’ll do her thing, but she doesn’t have to do everything, because Meredith can really help us out.”
The Indians got off to a strong start and built a 12-6 lead, but the Polar Bears ended the opening quarter on an 8-0 run to go ahead.
Fairmont Senior carried that momentum over into the second period, scoring the first 11 points to up its advantage to 25-12. Maier had consecutive layups during the surge, while Washenitz, a junior, accounted for five of her 21 points to help the Polar Bears lead by 13.
But Bridgeport answered with its own 9-0 run to close the deficit to four, before another Fairmont Senior surge sent the Polar Bears into halftime with a 32-22 advantage. Maier and Washentiz combined for all but eight of their team’s points through two quarters.
The Polar Bears picked up their defensive play to start the second half, forcing three Bridgeport turnovers in the opening minute to spark an 8-0 run. When Maier accounted for the next basket on a stickback, Senior held a commanding 42-22 lead.
Maier scored eight third-quarter points, while Washenitz added seven to help the Polar Bears take a 58-37 lead into the fourth.
The Indians never got closer than 16 in the final quarter.
“I’d be concerned if the first game was perfect, because the goal is still to improve as the season goes on,” Hines said. “But we did a lot of good things and we turned it up a notch in the second half.”
Maier made four of her team’s 10 3-pointers, while Washenitz connected on three triples. Washenitz, a West Virginia University commit, also had a game-high 11 assists.
Bekah Jenkins scored 13 points in the win and all five Polar Bear starters accounted for at least five points.
“We only have 11 girls, but this group plays hard,” Hines said. “They give great effort and that’s all you can ask for.”
Bridgeport sophomore Gabby Reep poured in 27 points in defeat. The Indians had 14 second-half turnovers, while the Polar Bears had only four.
“I don’t like to see us give up that many points,” Hines said. “We have a long way to go on defense.”
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(Mike Carey postgame Zoom conference)
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — No. 20 West Virginia secured the No. 2 seed in next week’s Big 12 Conference tournament with a 72-64 win at Kansas State. At 13-4 in league play with one contest at Baylor remaining, the Mountaineers have locked up their best finish in conference play since winning the co-championship in the 2013-2014 season.
“I am very proud of this team. No matter what happens from here on out, I am very proud of this team,” said WVU head coach Mike Carey.
The Mountaineers led from the third minute of the game all the way up to the opening minute of the fourth quarter. K-State took the lead on a basket from Ayoka Lee with 9:05 to play, giving the Wildcats their first lead of the game. WVU answered with a Kysre Gondrezick hoop on their next possession and they held on to the lead the rest of the way.
West Virginia allowed just four points over the final 5:30.
“We went back to man-to-man. And give Kari (Niblack) a lot of credit. She came in with fouls, fronted and did a great job. We we getting it high-low to Kari and she drew fouls,” Carey said. “I thought Kari and Esmery (Martinez) did a good job working together.”
For the second game in a row, Gondrezick delivered the shot to put the game out of reach in the final minute. Her three-pointer at Kansas Saturday with ten seconds left led the Mountaineers to a 72-68 win. Against K-State, Gondrezick hit another triple from a similar spot near the top of the key with 30 seconds left to put the Mountaineers up by eight.
“At the end, we set a pick for Kysre and went high-low. She was able to get the shot off and hit the three.”
Starting point guard Madisen Smith missed a third consecutive game with a groin injury and only seven players took the court for West Virginia. Foul trouble quickly mounted up for the Mountaineers. Niblack picked up three fouls in the first half. Blessing Ejiofor and KK Deans each finished the game with four fouls.
“We had both centers out. I had Esmery at the five and she is saying she needs a break. ‘I can’t give you a break. I have nobody to put in for you’. So finally, when one of the centers came back in, I put Jayla (Hemingway) at the four. So I had a point guard that has never played the one. I had a four that never played the four. I had a five that never played the five. Everyone was out of position. But you know what, this is what this team is made of.”
Martinez led the Mountaineers with 23 points and a dozen rebounds. Gondrezick scored 14, Deans added 13 and dished out 9 assists.
“I thought the first half (Deans) was a little out of control with turnovers but in the second half she did a terrific job. She slowed down a little bit, hit the open man. And she did a great job on (Christianna) Carr too. When KK was in there, Carr didn’t score much.”
Jasmine Carson scored 11 points off the bench on 4-for-5 shooting from the floor.
West Virginia’s 13 conference wins are their second highest total since joining the Big 12 nine years ago. They will play the winner of the 7/10 game next Friday in the Big 12 quarterfinals.
“I give all the credit to the players. We have had people leave the program because they weren’t playing. We have had injuries. We have had people play out of position. We have had to go play three straight games on the road with the fourth coming up. We haven’t had a lot of advantages going down the stretch here. But give these players a lot of credit because they have hung in there.”
Lee led KSU (8-16, 3-14 Big 12) with 26 points and 14 rebounds.
West Virginia (19-4, 13-4 Big 12) will conclude the regular season Monday at Baylor.
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Kanawha County Senior Assistant Prosecutor Maryclaire Akers has been appointed to fill a circuit court vacancy in Kanawha County.
Gov. Jim Justice announced the appointment Wednesday morning.
Akers, a Charleston native, will replace the late Circuit Judge Charles King, who died in December. Akers did much of her prosecuting work in front of King.
“I looked up to Charlie,” Akers told MetroNews. “He was very much a teacher not just to me, but a whole bunch of people. Lawyers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, trial attorneys, everybody.”
Akers said while she has experience as a prosecutor, that does not mean she will not be a just judge.
“I think my goal is to be fair to everyone and to be able to open my courtroom, have parties in front of me, hear their issues, and do the best job I can to be fair in my decisions and render them quickly,” she said.
Akers graduated from the West Virginia University College of Law in 1999. She earned a journalism degree from WVU in 1995. She’s spent much of her 21 years practicing in the Kanawha County Prosecutor’s Office.
With Akers’ appointment, five of the seven circuit judges in Kanawha County are female.
The seat will be up for election in May 2022.
King, who died on Dec. 28, became a Kanawha County assistant prosecutor in 1973 and was elected as the prosecuting attorney in 1984. He was first elected as circuit judge in 1988. He served as the chief judge on several occasions, including the majority of 2020.
Delegates passed a bill that would continue the kind of flexibility with beer, wine and liquor sales that has been allowed during the covid-19 pandemic.
The bill passed 89-10. It now goes to the state Senate.
“This is a rather large freedom bill,” said House Government Organization Committee Chairman Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh.
House Bill 2025 would make a variety of allowances, including the continued delivery or pick-up of alcoholic beverages with food orders. Another provision is continuing to allow people sit outside with their drinks in designated areas.
Those kinds of allowances started during the pandemic when people were asked to stay home and while businesses had to find new ways to operate.
Delegates today approved an amendment offered by Delegate John Paul Hott, R-Grant, allowing alcohol sales through drive-through windows.
Delegate Wayne Clark, R-Jefferson, said the bill would help put businesses on equal footing with competitors across the border. He described breweries, wineries and distilleries just across the border in Loudoun County, Va., that do brisk business.
“HB 2025 will lower the barrier for new craft breweries, distilleries in our state,” Clark told delegates. “Why not keep government out of the way permanently?”
Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, made a lengthy speech describing the dangers of alcohol abuse. “I might be talking to a brick wall here; I don’t know,” he said.
But, Fast said, “I think there’s a point to draw the line. This body has passed so many alcohol bills the past six years it’s unbelievable. This one here takes the cake.”
Delegate Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason, said he didn’t want Fast to be the only one to speak up.
“I did not come here to expand alcohol accessibility and consumption,” said Pinson, a pastor who was elected for the first time last year. “I believe the bill went too far. It’s 110 pages.”
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Five members of West Virginia’s Board of Public Works have come out in favor of a term limit resolution introduced this week in the state Senate.
Senate Joint Resolution 11 proposes changing the state Constitution to say that the person holding the office of Secretary of State, Auditor, Treasurer, Commissioner of Agriculture, or Attorney General can serve no more than three consecutive terms.
If approved by the legislature, the issue would be put on a ballot for state residents to vote on.
Four of those current officeholders, all Republicans, spoke in favor of the resolution during a Thursday afternoon news conference at the state capitol.
“We come here as a collective group to say we are tired of the policies of the past of having individuals sit in these offices for decades upon decades,” new state Treasurer Riley Moore, who proposed the term limit resolution, said. “We think this is the best way forward in terms of governance, transparency and accountability.”
Moore defeated 24-year Treasurer John Perdue in last November’s election.
State Auditor J.B. McCuskey won his second term in November. He called the resolution good government.
“The more of these people, everywhere in government that we can turn over, the less friction we’re going to have with change which is inherently needed with all governments at all times,” McCuskey said.
Former Auditor Glen Gainer served six terms before deciding not to run for reelection in 2016.
State Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt, who is also into his second term, said Wednesday he was “perfectly comfortable” with the idea of a three term limit.
“Those of us who have replaced long-time incumbents know how difficult it is to reform an office after decades of one-person control,” Leonhardt said. “We have to spend too much time during our terms to simply right the ship. Establishing term limits will help guarantee that these offices are constantly improving, forcing politicians to be more focused and seek faster change.”
The longest serving West Virginia agriculture commissioner was Gus Douglass, who served a total of 44 years in office.
Secretary of State Mac Warner said he quickly learned that one term in office was not enough. He began his second term in January. He said his military career taught him the value of change.
“The movement of people between positions is highly efficient and highly helpful because you take those experiences, I’ve been deployed in South America, Germany and into Asia, and each one of those taught me a different way of tackling problems,” Warner said.
State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is into his third term, did not attend the news conference but is in support of the resolution.
“I’m happy to support the resolution to establish term limits for the Board of Public Works,” Morrisey said in a news release. “I have pushed for a similar resolution in the past and believe it will restore more power back to the people.”
State Senator Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, introduced the resolution on behalf of Moore. He said term limits work well with the governor’s office and county sheriffs.
“Having it with the rest of the Board of Public Works brings us in line with the same we have on the governor’s level that we can bring in somebody who has a new perspective on the office,” Weld said.
The governor and county sheriff can only serve two consecutive terms.
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