Public officials frequently use two words - "personnel matter" - to make a mockery out of pledges of transparency in government. It happened again this week.
Three high-ranking officials at the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources were placed on involuntary paid leave this week, it has been reported. The three are the agency's deputy secretary for legal affairs, Susan Perry; assistant secretary John Law and general counsel Jennifer Taylor.
Rocco S. Fucillo, who has been acting head of the department for just a few weeks, dismissed one reporter's inquiry about the situation with this comment: "We do not respond to personnel matters."
And that was it. Taxpayers who support the DHHR, as well as West Virginians who rely on the agency for a variety of services, are left wondering why three officials have been told to stay home. Disputes over policy? Inability to get along with Fucillo, their new boss? Something more serious?
We don't know.
Many Mountain State residents are aware of situations in local and state government in which public employees were disciplined, possibly fired, and everyone involved agreed mum would be the word. On some occasions, wrongdoing or incompetence was alleged or even proven. Yet, apparently to avoid casting a bad light on an institution, matters were swept under the rug.
That never is acceptable. Certainly, when three high-ranking officials at one of the most important agencies in state government are involved, it ought to raise eyebrows.
Perry, Law and Taylor are not Fucillo's employees. They do not work for him or even Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. They're on the taxpayers' payroll, and that makes circumstances other than purely personal ones our business.
If Fucillo won't comment on the problem simply because taxpayers are owed an explanation, state legislators should demand one - and insist on an answer other than "personnel matters."