Ohio County, City of Wheeling Officials Working To Resolve Access Issue at City-County Building
WHEELING — Ohio County and Wheeling city officials are working to resolve an issue which has led to people being locked out of evening meetings at the City-County Building.
Meetings are announced and are intended to be open to the public, but doors to the City-County Building on Chapline Street in downtown Wheeling lock at 5 p.m.
Oftentimes residents and members of the local media find themselves unable to gain access to the building to attend evening sessions.
Those who have cell phone numbers of public officials attending the meetings may have success by calling or texting them with hopes of being let inside. Yet members of the general public wishing to attend, and without someone to call, are often simply out of luck.
The issue most recently came to light on Thursday night this past week when the Health and Recreation Committee of Wheeling City Council met at 5 p.m. The same problem has been observed in recent months during evening meetings of the Wheeling Planning Commission, as well as 6 p.m. meetings of the Ohio County Commissioners.
Local officials often vocally champion transparency in government proceedings, but holding public meetings that are not accessible could be fodder for arguments contending open meeting laws — or Sunshine Laws — are being violated.
On Friday, Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron noted that he was not aware that these issues were occurring, but vowed to work with city and county staff members to remedy the situation.
“I’ll make sure that all of our staff, including the Planning Commission, knows of this issue to avoid this in the future,” Herron said.
Herron noted that the Ohio County Sheriff’s Department handles security for the City-County Building. During evening meetings of Wheeling City Council — which take place only once per month at 5:30 p.m. on the third Tuesday of the month — security guards are present at the door, and members of the public are able to gain access to the building and to council chambers on the first floor. Herron said Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger, who regularly attends the council meetings, reminds them on the day of the meeting that an evening session will be taking place.
For committee meetings and other sessions that may meet in the evening, the committee chair typically schedules the meetings with the city clerk, Herron noted, indicating that miscommunication likely surfaces with multiple point people planning the meetings — an issue city officials vow to resolve.
County officials also stated that solutions to the issue are being examined.
“We are addressing that now,” Ohio County Administrator Randy Russell said on Friday.
Russell explained that the newly reconfigured “storefront” security area that was installed in the lobby of the City-County Building at the end of 2019 upgraded the security features for the building.
“Unfortunately, before the new security system was put in, there was no need to coordinate scheduling of meetings,” he said, noting that the doors to the building now lock automatically at 5 p.m., and when the security guards leave for the day, the building is secure — regardless of whether or not there is a meeting taking place.
The new security system was only in place for a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic led to the building’s closure. For many months last year, public meetings were conducted virtually online, so snags involving open doors for night meetings never had a chance to surface until recently, when in-person meetings resumed and were reopened to the public.
Russell noted that coordination and communication will be improved in order to assure that public meetings held in the evening will be accessible to all wishing to attend.