By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Six candidates are vying Nov. 6 for three seats in the newly created House of Delegates District 27 in Mercer County.
Five of the six men, Democrats Ryan Flanigan and Greg Ball, and Republicans John Shott, Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, and Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, met with members of the Daily Telegraph’s editorial board last week. Democrat Billy Morefield didn’t participate in the editorial board session, and didn’t provide information to the newspaper concerning his candidacy.
The candidates discussed a variety of issues, including job creation, unity in Mercer County, prison overcrowding in the state, and the so-called war on coal. The new delegate district includes most of Mercer County, including Princeton and Bluefield, and a single precinct from Raleigh County.
The candidates had varied responses when asked if West Virginia needed to build a new jail to address prisoner overcrowding in the state.
“I think we should seriously consider looking toward building a new prison, but I think if we do we need to gear it toward drug rehabilitation,” Flanigan, a Princeton attorney and the current chairman of the Mercer County Democratic Party, said. “I think as a defense attorney myself, 80 to 85 percent of all of the clients I represent deal with drugs. So I think if we are going to build a new prison we need to focus it on drug rehabilitation. I think what we can do to curb the overcrowding population is look at low risk, non-violent offenders, and get them the rehabilitation they need.”
“First it is unfortunate that we have to build new prisons to put people in,” Ellington, a Princeton physician and incumbent lawmaker who currently serves as the minority chair of the House Health and Human Resources Committee, said. “I have no problem if we need it. But with repeat offenders we need to look at how we are going to rehab these people. Alternative methods, such as drug courts for low-risk offenders, I think we need to explore these options.”
“I think the first thing probably I would mention is if we are able to improve the economy here where people have more jobs and hope you will have less of a criminal and drug problem here,” Gearheart, an incumbent lawmaker currently serving on House committees dealing with education, political subdivisions, roads and transportation, and senior citizen issues, said. “So the investment of a new prison may not be the best way to improve the economy. I think we have some things here in Mercer County that work. The drug court is a great program. I had mentioned in our prior meeting here that I’m in favor of some type of work-type prison where they (inmates) can be self-sustaining.”
“As far as a new prison goes, again if we need it, I think the numbers will match,” Ball, a Princeton attorney who previously served legislative tenures with the staff of U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and U.S. Rep. Nick Joe Rahall, D-W.Va., said. “I agree I think with what everyone is saying. We also need to look at alternatives and drug courts. So that gets back to the recidivism issue as well. I’m sure you know they have enhanced sentencing on all of those.”
“Before I would support a new prison, I want to be convinced that we are operating the existing system efficiently,” Shott, a Bluefield attorney who has served as a former member of both the state Senate and House of Delegates, said. “Sixty five to 70 percent of the jail population is just there for a limited time. Many of those people are able to make bail or post a bond a few days after. So we not only need to transfer them, we need to get our magistrates to recognize those cases. Judge Frazier and I passed a bill in 2010 that allows the local jails like the Bluefield jail to increase the time they can hold prisoners.”
The candidates were asked if they thought Mercer County officials, including state lawmakers, county commissioners and others, are working together, and if not, what could be done to improve cooperation on the local and state level.
“If they are working together, they are not very effective,” Shott said. “So I would say we have a lot of room for improvement. I don’t know of any common forum where local officials get together periodically. I know being on a number of boards you can spend all of your time in meetings. But I know there is no better use of your time than communicating with mayors, county officials and elected representatives. So I think we really need make an effort to get together on organized issues.”
“I can tell you about my experiences, as you guys well know that I’ve worked with both Congressman Rahall and Sen. Rockefeller for a long time,” Ball said. “I’ve tried my best to work with Bluefield and Princeton. I think everyone will admit economic development here is not easy. You can’t just wave a magic wand and things start (looking) up. But If elected I plan to work with everyone in the county to bring jobs and economic development to the area. If it takes a single meeting with all of these entities at one time — I look forward to working with everyone.”
“We do have a southern West Virginia caucus in the House of Delegates,” Gearhart said. “It meets weekly, and we do get together and discuss topics of mutual interest to all of us. Likewise, myself being elected in the 24th District, which is Bluefield and Bramwell, I don’t find myself limited to just projects in those districts. I went to bat very hard for Oakvale (for the new school). I took a very active interest in it when it wasn’t awarded (funding) originally. We were in contact with all of the board members when it wasn’t funded originally, and had some input on it. However, I think you will find some issues where there will be differences. Delegate Frazier and I had a very different opinion about redistricting. I frankly love and respect Delegate Frazier. But on this particular issue we came from polar opposites on how it happened.”
“The short answer would be yes and no,” Ellington said. “The yes part within the state House and Senate. As Delegate Gearheart mentioned we formed the southwest coalition. So there was a cooperation on different topics. So that is something we were on board with. As far as local (communication) with the House and Senate, we do work very hard to get contacts with those people. I think that could be improved certainly. We do have a Mercer County Day at the Legislature. That is where we do get our local chambers — Bluefield and Princeton — and the county commissioners to come up and talk to us. So there is communication as far as different topics locally for us. We meet each year with the board of education, which we usually plan in December or January before the session starts where the Mercer County board goes over different options they want us to discuss. The Oakvale water project is something I was directly involved with. So there are areas where there is communication and areas that need to be improved.”
“What you’ve discussed highlights there is a problem with communications,” Flanigan said. “That somehow we all have to protect our own piece of turf, and we can’t all work together to make sure Mercer County prospers. I’m not running under the notion that I’m running just for the people of Princeton. And we need to get out of this notion that you are either for Bluefield or against Bluefield. I happen to live in Princeton, but if Bluefield suffers, Princeton ultimately is going to suffer.”
The candidates also were asked how state lawmakers can help with job creation in Mercer County.
“I believe providing the infrastructure we need to bring in certain jobs is vitally important,” Ball said. “I think continuing just to work on developing the infrastructure to try to bring in the jobs that we want is really the biggest thing we could do here. I know various groups, agencies, towns, and everyone is interested in it. Oakvale wants clean water. Everyone wants clean water. If you don’t have that it is difficult to bring in business. I know Oakvale as you are heading down 460 could now be prime for growth. And I understand Bluefield is now trying to annex John Nash (Boulevard).”
“I don’t think there is any magic bullet,” Shott said. “As a legislator, you have to focus on two issues. One you have to improve the business climate for the entire state. You need to be sure that continues on and you’ve got to protect the Rainy Day fund. You also have to attack some of the other tax problems, and really improve the climate of the entire state. Locally, you have to focus on your strengths. One is the Hatfield-McCoy Trail, and the economic development it has stimulated for Bramwell. The Matoaka trailhead is on hold. But I think if you get two trailheads in Mercer County, it is the best you can have to stimulate economic activity. And Bluefield State and Concord University can generate economic opportunity if you can focus on helping those two entities to grow.”
“I think it goes back to the question we just talked about,” Flanigan said. “It is the fragmented approach Mercer County has been operating under for a long time. It’s the approach you are either for Bluefield and against Princeton, or are for Princeton and against Bluefield. That is not the approach I think we need to operate under anymore. And I think Mercer County has a really good chance after the redistricting. I think we can take advantage of the redistricting and get some of these infrastructure projects done like the King Coal Highway and the Oakvale Water project, and Bluefield’s recent decision to annex 30 acres of John Nash Boulevard. Businesses are going to follow where the infrastructure is.”
“First of all I don’t think our leadership in the county is as fragmented as people might think because each of us are working together to try to find some common ground and get things done,” Ellington said. “We do have to work on things. Education is a big factor. We rank at the bottom of the country. You have to have a viable workforce to bring the industry in here. And having a fair, lower broad-tax base as John was mentioning. I think you have to be more competitive. And as far as the infrastructure, you do need the roads built. All of that goes right back to leadership in Charleston. The leadership in Charleston looks at southern West Virginia as in their back pocket when they need us. They disrespect us.”
“I’m extremely positive about how we are and our potential,” Gearheart said. “I’ve lived in Bluefield when we had tremendous industry here. I worked right next door to you in a manufacturing plant that has now closed. We are last in education performance. We are 48th in per capita income. In Bluefield, we have the problem of being compared to a more competitive circumstance across the state line. As John mentioned, we need to get rid of the business franchise tax. We have an equipment and inventory tax here that makes us extremely uncompetitive. These kind of things make folks have to locate in other places. When they have to do business in Virginia they will.”
All five candidates expressed support for coal industry, and criticized the Obama administration’s position on coal.
“We have to first of all recognize the source of the problem, and that’s in Washington, D.C.,” Shott said. “The current administration is attacking coal on various angles. First of all from the state standpoint we need to send a very clear message.”
“I support the coal industry, and I know both of our past or most recent governors have joined in supporting the coal industry and opposing EPA regulations,” Ball said. “But I think we can do a lot as far as voicing our concerns for the industry, and I would do that.”
“The problem right now is we have an administration that has public disdain for coal,” Gearheart said. “I was elected as a Romney delegate. I’m supportive of Romney for president. His comments show support for coal. I think it is relatively obvious where I stand. I’m fortunate in this group in that if Gov. Romney should be elected as president, I had dinner with him on a couple of occasions. When I lost a primary bid, he called me personally. I was in Abingdon at Carter Machinery. There is no question where this man stands on burning coal. I’m a supporter. I think it is very important to have a coal person in the White House.”
“We need to invest in cleaner coal technology and liquefaction — those are things we need to work on,” Ellington said. “People are not working, not paying taxes and aren’t enjoying the quality of life they should have. I think it does come back that we need to utilize this (coal) and get real with it. The state is dependent upon coal. It has (been) in the past and will continue in the future.”
“There have been four rulings now,” Flanigan said. “So clearly the EPA has overstepped its boundaries as it relates to coal. “West Virginia needs to be at the forefront of doing everything we can to encourage using coal and natural gas. We need to invest in finding ways to burn coal cleaner. “
— Contact Charles Owens at email@example.com