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Statehouse beat: Picking on the new kid

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was no secret during the 2012 election that retiring Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass was not too keen about the possibility of then-Sen. Walt Helmick replacing him.

Douglass may be gone, but he's still bedeviling new Commissioner Helmick.

One of the first bills to come across Helmick's desk was from Embassy Suites for $8,023 for a reception back in November that was billed as a Celebration of Agriculture, but was really a retirement party for Douglass.

Helmick has refused to pay the bill -- it shows up on the auditor's website as "rejected, returning per agency request."

Helmick is miffed that the department staged the taxpayer-funded party, despite getting advice from the Ethics Commission that they could not use state funds, and after being turned down by the governor's office for contingency funds to hold the party. (The governor's office reportedly offered the use of the Culture Center for the event, but got a thanks-but-no-thanks.)

If Helmick sticks to his guns, Embassy Suites will probably have to go to the state Court of Claims to try to get payment. Of course, it's not like they'll go bankrupt: Since its opening, the Charleston hotel has done $9.06 million in business with the state, including $6.88 million paid by the Department of Education for various teacher training seminars.

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Perhaps as befuddling as the abrupt firing of General Services Division Director David Oliverio was the meeting called of all General Services employees to notify them of Oliverio's departure.

All 100-some GSD employees were called in to Charleston -- some from as far away as Weirton -- for what was described as a five- to seven-minute presentation by Administration Secretary Ross Taylor to say that Oliverio was out, that Taylor wanted GSD to "go in a different direction," and then saying he would not take questions.

Many participants thought it was a waste of work hours and mileage for the travel.

Deputy Secretary Cedric Greene is temporarily working out of Oliverio's office, but does not have the title of acting director.

Although much has been written about how Oliverio straightened out a division that had been hit by numerous scandals and made significant upgrades to a Capitol Complex whose buildings had been subjected to years of deferred maintenance, it should also be noted that, unlike his predecessors, Oliverio actually had a background in physical plant maintenance.

(Too often in the past, when a new governor took office, the position was a place to put whichever campaign supporter had the least discernable management skills.)

Shortly after Oliverio took over the position, the Capitol grounds were torn up with ditches to run lines from the chiller plant to the Capitol and other buildings on campus.

Oliverio was particularly upset about the appearance of the grounds -- noting that one of his degrees is in landscape architecture.

General Services employees are at a loss for what led to Oliverio's ouster. There had been some isolated issues with employees abusing overtime or using vehicles for personal use, but nothing like what was going on prior to Oliverio's tenure.

More recently there had been controversy over the installation of GPS tracking devices on General Services vehicles, as well as an ill-conceived meeting where Oliverio berated employees for allegedly tampering with those devices.

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Magic bus: State Automobile and Truck Dealers lobbyist Ruth Lemmon confirms renting a limo to take freshmen senators to dinner at Café Cimino in Sutton Wednesday evening.

She said it was a good opportunity to meet with the new senators in a conversational atmosphere, away from the pressures of Charleston.

Not all freshman senators attended. For one, Sen. Donald Cookman, D-Hampshire, (an early front-runner for freshman of the year) sent regrets so he could attend the Select Committee on Children and Poverty's meeting in Oak Hill that evening.

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Finally, Governor's Highway Safety Program Director Bob Tipton used simple physics to explain why people should wear seat belts: In an crash, Tipton noted, unbelted occupants will continue to travel at the speed the vehicle was traveling until they hit something, and the human body just wasn't designed to absorb 30-mph to 70-mph-plus impacts.

That's why 75 percent of people ejected from vehicles are killed instantly, said Tipton, whose job requires that he review all state accident reports involving traffic fatalities.

Tipton said that, while he's heard anecdotal stories about persons being unable to get out of flooding or burning vehicles because they could not unbuckle their belts, he's never seen a single accident report out of the hundreds he's reviewed where that actually occurred.

(Apparently, his explanation wasn't simple enough: The bill to make failure to wear seat belts a primary offense (HB2108) remains dry-docked on the House inactive calendar.)

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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