HARPERS FERRY – The Harpers Ferry Town Council, in its first major action as a newly-elected body since four disputed ballots reversed the town’s political power balance, has dropped its contract attorney.
Euphemia “Effie” Kallas, a Shepherdstown attorney, was barred during a recent Town Council meeting from providing the town further legal advice. Town officials agreed to seek new legal representation.
During her first meeting as a council member, Nancy Case initiated the unanimous vote that replaced Kallas.
“It’s critical to the town, not only from a legal perspective, it’s important to our finances, our ability to move forward effectively to have legal counsel representing, advising us and guiding the municipality,” Case said while presenting her motion to the council. “We need to make sure we have a municipal attorney who represents the full Town Council, all of the local officials who serve all of our citizens, with full confidence and full trust.”
Case won election to the council last month after helping to challenge a decision to reject four provisional ballots cast in the town’s June 2019 election. “This isn’t personal,” she added at another point during the council’s discussion. “This is getting the best representation that we can afford for the town of Harpers Ferry, turning a new page and moving it forward.”
Two other council members said they were unsatisfied with her legal service to the town, while Mayor Wayne Bishop and two other council members defended her work and counsel.
“I haven’t felt that she has been doing any kind of a disservice to our town or to us as a council,” offered Councilwoman Barbara Humes.
“She was able to advise us along the way as to what the law required and we were able to reach a resolution,” Humes continued, measuring her words carefully after pressed by Case to explain her support further. “She advised the town on the law that supported this, the town’s involvement, which was limited, in the contest that was brought about the election.”
Humes joined Councilman Hardy Johnson in attempting to strike wording in the council’s motion to prevent Kallas from giving legal advice to the town. The council members said Kallas was capable of serving and should still be allowed to serve the town in the future.
Bishop, though expressing confidence in Kallas’ legal service, abstained from the vote to amend the council’s action. The proposed amendment failed on a 4-2 vote.
Harpers Ferry Recorder Kevin Carden provided the most severe assessment of Kallas’ legal work for the town.
“There were numerous times that come to mind when Ms. Kallas presented to us either unclear or incorrect information or there were questions posed that a competent municipal attorney should probably have known the answer to, and Ms. Kallas did not,” Carden said. “That’s not to say that she may not be competent in other ways. But as a municipality attorney, I don’t believe that she’s as entirely competent as we need.
“There were a few occasions where she gave us advice in public meetings that I knew was incorrect, and I would point those out and there would be a little bit of an exchange, and I could present evidence that what she said was incorrect. And that shouldn’t happen.”
Carden said he could recall other situations where he thought Kallas gave “poor advice,” but that he couldn’t comment on those because the advice was given in closed-door executive sessions. Public officials are barred from disclosing specific legal advice given during legally conducted executive sessions.
Those comments of support and criticism followed familiar fissures between political factions over whether to count four provisional ballots cast by town residents during a closely and sharply contested municipal election.
Until last month, a four-vote majority of town officials — composed of Bishop, Humes, Johnson and previous council member Charlotte Thompson — rejected the votes on the provisional ballots. A minority of three town officials — Carden and council members Jay Premack and Christian Pechuekonis — sought to count the ballot votes.
The ballots were ultimately opened and counted last month, but only after the West Virginia Supreme Court settled the legal skirmish with a 4-0 decision in June. The high court’s decision upheld a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge’s previous order to count the provisional-ballot votes.
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, the state’s top election authority; Carden, the town’s election supervisor; and Nikki Painter, Jefferson County’s chief deputy clerk of elections, were among the officials who advised the mayor and council members that state election law required that the provisional votes be counted.
An official court-ordered ballot count on July 29 revealed 15 additional votes that turned the tide of the election contest. Case, one of two candidates who challenged town officials to accept the provisional ballots, won one of five council seats by a single vote. Thompson lost her council seat.
Kallas was paid a little over $30,000, at a rate of $225 per hour, to work solely on legal issues related to the election, nearly all of which was conducted behind closed doors and without public comment. Those billings, according to invoices Kallas filed with the town, included legal work to review legal appeals filed by private attorneys on both sides in the matter.
She also appeared in court to represent the town but said little during those election-contest proceedings.
Her billings included $3,757 worth of legal work on July 3, July 5 and July 6 last year related to a West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office investigation into complaints of alleged election wrongdoing by town officials. No public action was taken due to the investigation.
Carden and Pechuekonis felt that Kallas was also absent during several pivotal discussions when it was important for the council to obtain legal advice.
“There were times when we needed her badly and I felt like — I just felt neglected,” Pechuekonis said. “We were hanging there, all of us at that time, where we didn’t know exactly what to do. Because we confronted some massive or huge legal issues.”
“I’ve lost confidence, and I think we need a clean slate and we need to start over,” he added.
Premack said he was most concerned that Kallas was hired as the town’s attorney without a legally required vote of approval from the council. He said her work for the town “doesn’t meet the standard of the state statute and needs consent of the governing body.
“So for that reason, it’s important that we go through the right process where we evaluate an attorney or attorneys who are qualified and come to an agreement as a governing body …,” he said.
Bishop and the other town officials agreed that the council never approved a written contract for Kallas’ service as an attorney.
The mayor has acknowledged that the town attorney is hired to serve all of the town’s elected officials as a whole. Previously, he tapped Kallas as the town’s contract attorney after attorney David Hammer, Kallas’ husband who preceded Kallas as the town’s counsel, campaigned for and won a Jefferson County Circuit Court judgeship in 2018.
Hammer, who represented Bishop and his wife Elayne Edel as their personal attorney before the Harpers Ferry Planning Commission in 2013, became the town’s legal counsel after Bishop first won election as mayor in 2017.
Later, Bishop and Edel hosted a campaign event in their Harpers Ferry home for Hammer while the would-be judge sought election to the Jefferson County circuit court seat. The informal meet-the-candidate event occurred on May 5, 2018, and was attended by about two dozen people.
Kallas confirmed the event happened, but added that she wasn’t present.
Responding to a request for comment from the Spirit, Kallas wrote in an email that she “had no prior relationship or communications with Mayor Bishop [before becoming the town’s attorney]. I met him for the first time at a Town Council Meeting in 2018.”
Kallas also wrote that she had no relationship with Edel except for meeting her “for the first time years ago at a social function and had no ongoing relationship or communications with her thereafter.”
Commenting on the council’s impending vote to stop using Kallas, Bishop said this: “I trust and respected Effie’s service and her qualifications. And I think she’s done a good job for us. But, again, the body [of the Town Council] can make these decisions [to hire and fire its contract legal representation] and that’s all I have to say.”
After supporting her legal service, Bishop joined with other town officials to cast a vote to stop using Kallas as a town attorney and to seek new legal representation for the town.
Carden is among some council members who have said Kallas had consulted closely with Bishop several times without impartially communicating with all members of the town council.
During the council meeting, Carden described an encounter he had with Kallas on last Nov. 12 regarding the provisional ballots in his role as town recorder. The encounter, he said, occurred over an afternoon emergency telephone call by the circuit court judge Debra McLaughlin presiding over court proceedings related to the election lawsuits.
“We as the council — well most of us on council at least, I think — didn’t know anything about this meeting until after it had already happened,” Carden said. “And during that meeting, Miss Kallas has presented a statement saying that the ballots were not secure, we didn’t know where they were and implying that I had not done my job [as town recorder] to secure those ballots.
“For Miss Kallas to present that question in the court without contacting me first as the supervisor of elections for this town, as recorder for this town, and asking about the security of the ballots; if she had any questions she should have done that,” he continued, “and when I asked her about that later on she said, ‘I disagree.’ I think that any reasonable person would have agreed with what I said.”
“That’s just one example,” he said. “I felt several times that Miss Kallas did not represent equally all seven members of the council as the governing body. People in this town have contacted me and have probably contacted you as well with the same concerns.”
Kallas declined to comment on any of the statements made by the Harpers Ferry Town Council members.