In-depth look sought of port authority

WEIRTON – City Council on Monday asked the West Virginia Public Port Authority to take an in-depth look at the local port’s operation and, if cause is found, to replace its officers and directors as is deemed necessary.

Ward 3 Councilman Fred Marsh, who co-sponsored the resolution with Ward 6 Councilman Dave Dalrymple and City Manager Valerie Means, said it’s incumbent on WVPPA Executive Director Doug York to “look into the reports everybody has been receiving and clear this up.”

“There’s been a lot of discussion over the last week and a half,” he said. “I liken it to a family member being sick and taking them to the doctor – you’ve got to get them checked out and (if a problem is suspected) maybe even do a biopsy.”

Marsh said it’s time to put “questions and concerns” surrounding the port to rest.

“I know an audit has been started by (State Auditor Glen B. Gainer),” he said. “But I also believe the Port Authority has a (responsibility) to police its own agencies … and if there is a problem, to correct it.”

The resolution, which passed on a 7-0 vote, asks the WVPPA to take “immediate action” to investigate and, if warranted “take any and all corrective actions necessary.” It suggests WVPPA has a “moral and ethical obligation” to the people of Weirton to address questions surrounding the port’s organizational structure, “including facts about their subsidiaries, financial information, cash management and transparency, background history of the principals involved, … allegations of non-payment or delinquent payment to vendors, allegations of non-payment of employees, clarification of employee classifications, reports of alleged threats of Eminent Domain as a means to acquire property, statements of unfounded authority to other parties and authorities, and other items of concern.”

The resolution also acknowledges the port’s key role “as one of many vital tools available to drive economic growth and diversity with a region or community” but said the city’s “questions and concerns have not been satisfactorily answered … to a level that meets the city’s responsibility to its taxpayers and citizens.”

“There’s been a lot of innuendo, a lot of talk going around the community over the last year, year and a half,” Ward 6 Councilman David Dalrymple said. “We’ve tried to address it, get some answers. Some we’ve got, some we haven’t. I really think it’s time to clear the air and get everyone sorted out, find out what is going on at the port authority.”

Dalrymple said that conceptually, a port “is a great idea for our community.”

“But I’ve been concerned with it for a while and I know others have concerns,” he added. “I believe we’ve done what we’re supposed to do” as council representatives.

“It’s a shame to be in this position,” Ward 7 Councilman Terry Weigel said. “They are a state agency, reporting to the WVPPA. I would think WVPPA would also be asking questions. It’s a shame it has to come down to us hearing all the questions, asking questions, and not getting answers.”

Mayor George Kondik said he was in his second term as Ward 5 representative when the idea of developing Weirton as an inland port first surfaced by then-Gov. Wise in 1993.

“This is not an attack on the port,” he said. “We’re asking what they’re doing here, what’s going on, and we all hope they give us a favorable grade.”

Council took the action nearly three months after it had joined with the Brooke and Hancock County commissioners in asking Senate President Jeff Kessler to initiate a post-legislative audit of the port’s operation to address a variety of concerns ranging from the port’s organizational structure and transparency to the role being played by Karl Keffer, who was previously associated with a port project in the Eastern Panhandle and was named in a pair of lawsuits alleging his company had failed to pay two vendors for hundreds of thousands of dollars in work they’d done for him on that project. Default judgments in those breach of contracts suits against Keffer totaling more than $500,000 are on the books in Berkley County and Fairfax County, Va., where the suits were filed.

WAPA Chairman B.J. DeFelice said the organization “stands by its welcoming a review and audit” and invited council to “come to our meetings, come and see and understand. They have an opportunity. It might help with their confusion also.”

He said WVPPA is “involved weekly, they are aware and involved and we are aligning to all their projects.”

Until last week, Keffer was described as an adviser to DeFelice. However, the board last week voted to appoint Keffer to serve as interim director for a 90-day period.

“We believe in (Keffer’s) experience and background,” DeFelice said. “I’m chairman of WAPA, I’ve been trying to play numerous parts and because of that, it adds confusion.

“Mr. Keffer’s background in port development, federal contracts and federal programs, his understanding is significant. As a board we’re pleased with his background and experience.”

DeFelice said WAPA has the authority to make the appointment, though if the state were to object “we would reconsider as a board.”

“Our board knows most and best what we do,” he said. “We have the authority to make these decisions. We believe we’re doing what’s in the best interests of (the port).”

How many votes Keffer garnered is not known, though it is known the decision was not unanimous.