Looking at the Harpers Ferry election case over the past few weeks, it appears that the petitioners who brought a lawsuit against half of the town's council after their decision to not count four ballots due to clerical errors, are winning on a couple of fronts — for the time being.
Circuit Court Judge Debra McLaughlin on Nov. 6, ruled in favor of Nancy Singleton Case and Deborah A. McGee, who appealed a decision by Harpers Ferry leaders earlier this year to not count four provisional ballots in the town's municipal election, on the grounds that the voters – who lived in Harpers Ferry – were accidentally listed as Bolivar residents.
Case and McGee both ran for seats on the Town Council and lost by less than four votes each, which means that depending on how the four votes went, the balance of power could change.
At the following week's Town Council meeting, a circus ensued when three council members including Hardy Johnson, Charlotte Thompson and Barbara Humes, along with Mayor Wayne Bishop, didn't show up for the ordered recount or the regularly scheduled meeting, in order to avoid forming a quorum, which was required for both actions to proceed.
At least from the optics of the situation, it was another victory for Case and McGee.
However, from a political standpoint, that no-show was a necessary move for Bishop, Johnson, Thompson and Humes. After the ruling from McLaughlin, Johnson, Thompson and Humes immediately appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and two days later, requested a stay from McLaughlin until the appeal could be heard.
The council’s following non-meeting demonstrated for all to see that the people who have the power in Harpers Ferry are willing to do whatever it takes — even if it means ignoring a court order — to hold on to their power.
And let’s be honest about things here: These antics are all due to the desire of Bishop and his crew to stop the Hill Top Hotel project.
A fair election seems to be the furthest thing from their minds. This is not a simple difference of opinion. Those four people who lived in Harpers Ferry who had their ballots dismissed, were unfortunately in the way.
The ballots could have still been counted Monday while an appeal was worked out. It's not a given that Case and McGee would win those seats on the council if the ballots were to be counted.
Counting the ballots could have confirmed that Case and McGee in fact lost in their bids for Town Council and that could have provided closure for this whole messy affair. But, for some reason, that was a chance that Bishop and his crew were not willing to take.
But the fact that all four public officials knew to stay away at such an opportune time without notifying other council members brings concerns of chain communication.
In some ways, you could argue that the four people working together to avoid the meeting was a quorum in and of itself – and out of view of the public. Courts and ethics commissions have ruled against such tactics in the past.
Politics in Harpers Ferry appears to be a bloodsport.
Bishop knew that his compatriots, Johnson, Thompson and Humes, had filed an appeal and that it would only be a matter of time before some kind of a stay would be granted. And besides, much like the seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, Bishop knows when he has to actually follow a court order.
John Marshall, the chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1801-1835, issued a ruling in the Cherokee Indians case, Worcester v. Georgia (1832), where he found that Georgia had no right to seize Cherokee lands on which gold had been found and that the decision on Georgia’s part to take those lands violated several treaties.
No friend of the Cherokee, Jackson was incensed by Marshall’s ruling and said:
“John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”
While it’s unlikely that Bishop and his crew ever uttered such a phrase, it still applies in this instance. Remember, a term on the Harpers Ferry Council only lasts two years. Time and the minutia of bureaucracy are on the side of Bishop, Johnson, Thompson and Humes.
Not to mention, the developer of the Hill Top House Project is running out of patience after a decade of delays from the town.
In their filing for a stay with McLaughlin, Johnson, Thompson and Humes stated through attorney J. Zak Ritchie, that a stay was all but automatic and that the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals would move the case to the top of its docket.
That sounds reasonable, but remember, the wheels of government grind slowly, and the Supreme Court’s last day in session was Nov. 7 and its last day in conference is Friday.
The next question is how long will it take for the panel to come back with a ruling?
By the time this case is decided, it will have been at least six months since the original election and by the time a ruling is issued, the snow might be melting in the Eastern Panhandle. Assuming that all moves forward positively for Case and McGee, it might be June before they are seated.
That will give Bishop and his crew plenty of time to frustrate and thwart any potential progress on the Hill Top Hotel project.
Jefferson County Sheriff Pete Dougherty took possession of the four ballots in question last Tuesday. They now sit in the department’s evidence locker.
What does this mean to the overall process? Was it a win for Case and McGee or Bishop and his lackeys? There’s no way to tell. But whatever the outcome, expect it to be a long and drawn-out process replete with frustrating delays.
The saying goes, “You can’t fight city hall.”
Well, Case and McGee are doing just that. They’ve won a few battles but this war is far from over.
Regardless of the final outcome of this war, the public has benefited from seeing the lengths that some people in government will go to in order to maintain their power.