WILLIAMSON, WV (LOOTPRESS) – An emotional session of the Mingo County Commission before a packed audience at the Williamson courthouse led to the appointment of Martin Fortner as the newest county commissioner Wednesday.
The meeting began more than 45 minutes after the announced 4 p.m. starting time as Democrat Commissioner Diann Hannah and Republican Thomas Taylor apparently huddled in the adjoining office area to discuss their options.
Eventually, a glum-looking Taylor walked in along with Hannah as the assembled crowd and staff awaited their official action.
Perhaps explaining Taylor’s mood, he later called the meeting “the saddest day in Mingo County Commission history.”
Faced with the task of filling the vacancy caused by the tragic death of Republican Commissioner Gavin Smith, the two remaining commissioners had already exhausted the 30 days given them initially to agree on a replacement.
Along the way, disagreements arose as one major issue flourished when Smith’s widow, Audrey, announced she would like to fill the seat. Audrey Smith confirmed that she was a registered independent at the time of her husband’s death.
State law requires that the appointee be of the same political affiliation as the person vacating the seat. In fact, the two have to be members of the same party for at least 60 days prior to the vacancy occurring.
That appeared to eliminate Audrey Smith from consideration but her supporters quickly insisted that their interpretation of the law held that the commissioners had to appoint a duly registered Republican during the initial 30-day vacancy. However, they argued that the next step in the process did not technically include that requirement.
The second stage involved the county Republican Executive Committee recommending three possible replacements to the commission. They were given 15 days to do that. Following the advice of Republican State Executive Director John Findlay, the county committee met and recommended Fortner, Chadwick Hatfield, and Audrey Smith as potential replacements.
Wednesday marked the last day the two sitting commissioners could agree on one of the three recommendations. It was obvious from the tone and demeanor of the commissioners that no agreement had been reached.
Eventually, Hannah was called on to strike one name from the list. Prosecutor Duke Jewell had explained that this was the next step in the selection process. As the longest-serving member, Hannah was first to remove a name; then Taylor; with the one remaining becoming the new commissioner.
In response to a reporter’s question, Commission Attorney Tom Ward said the commission could proceed to select a replacement even though a Writ of Prohibition motion had been filed earlier in the day seeking to stop the process until the Supreme Court could rule on Smith’s eligibility.
“Anyone can file but the court has to grant it to be effective,” Ward explained.
The writ had been sought by Ernest Sammons, who had asked to be considered for the commission seat. He argued that Smith’s selection was improper and potentially kept him from being one of the three nominees.
Hannah then announced that she was striking Smith. After a brief pause, Taylor removed Hatfield. That meant only Fortner remained as the appointee.
Taylor, who had consistently advocated for Smith, was obviously disappointed with the outcome as was the majority of those in the meeting room and in the outside hallway.
Taylor said that despite the appointment being the only business on the agenda, he wanted to extend the meeting to allow public comment.
Those followed for nearly an hour with nearly all expressing disappointment that Audrey Smith had not been chosen.
Accusations were also tossed back and forth, with Smith supporters questioning Hannah’s motives. The language became heated at times and a brief scuffle broke out in the hallway at one point. It was quickly curtailed by some of the uniformed deputies on hand for crowd control.
Hannah insisted that she had nothing against Audrey Smith but felt the law did not permit her to be appointed. Her comments agreed with the arguments made by Sammons in his Writ motion.
Taylor disagreed and appeared to be backed by Commission Attorney Tom Ward.
Ward’s opinion apparently differed with the views of Jewell, as stated at earlier meetings when the county prosecutor seemed to say that Mrs. Smith was not eligible for the appointment.
Jewell and Taylor briefly clashed when Jewell interrupted the public comments to say that the record should clearly show that Fortner had been chosen.
The spat ended with Taylor pointing at Jewell to say, “I’m running this meeting.” This brought a round of applause from many in the crowd.
An emotional Audrey Smith said she will run in the 2022 election to finish her husband’s term. Hannah repeatedly urged Smith supporters in the crowd to “go out and work for her and get her elected.”
It was during the public comment that Taylor, apparently fighting back tears, referred to his close friendship with Gavin Smith and made his “saddest day” comment. Many in the crowd nodded agreement.
Fortner will apparently be sworn in prior to the commission meeting scheduled for next Wednesday.