West Virginia Human Rights Commission’s new website

I was recently contacted by Josh Brown, a housing investigator with the West Virginia Human Rights Commission, who told me the commission has a new website, www.hrc.wv.gov.

Brown said the new website contains “a lot of information concerning rights that tenants have under the WV Fair Housing Act (WV Code 5-11A) regarding discrimination as well as other resources that some may find helpful. Individuals can find information on our site concerning their rights as well as how to file a complaint if they feel that they have been the target of discrimination in the rental or sale of housing.”

On the main page there’s a list of the commission’s most popular forms:

There’s even a page to explain how you can file a complaint.

The West Virginia Human Rights Commission deals with issues relating to discrimination not only in housing, but in employment and places of public accommodations. There’s definitely some interesting information on there, so I suggest checking it out if you have a chance.

– Leann

Local news round-up May 7, 2012

Classes and finals may be over, but people in Morgantown are still setting fires. According to the Morgantown Police Department, three suspects were arrested for throwing items into fires over the weekend. According to the press release:

On May 5, 2012, Mark David Euga Jr., 20 years of age was arrested at the corner of North Spruce Street and Fife Street as he was throwing combustible items on a street fire. Mr. Euga was also charged with underage consumption at the time of this incident.

On May 5, 2012, Kyle G. Whelen, 20 years of age was arrested at the corner of Dallas and Forest Street as he was throwing a couch on a street fire. Mr. Whelen was also charged with underage consumption at the time of this incident.

On May 5, 2012, Justin David Myers, 21 years of age was cited for throwing combustible material onto a fire that was burning in a dumpster at the corner of 3rd Avenue and McClain Alley.

This reminded me to check in with West Virginia University officials to see when they would be releasing the numbers of expulsions and suspensions for this year. The numbers will be ready next week. According to Assistant Dean of Students Melanie Cook, the numbers will show total violations and sanctions for academic and behavioral violations.

In other words, they won’t state how many students were expelled specifically for fire-related activity. When I asked how that would risk identifying students, Cook responded, “Our University counsel has advised us against doing so; they think it could be possible for others to identify them.”

Recently the Dominion Post has published a couple updates on stories I’ve been following.

  • Landlord ordered to pay $20K – In February 2008, Morgantown landlord Gary Walden settled a civil lawsuit by agreeing to pay $175,000 to tenants he was accused of sexually harassing or groping, and a $50,000 fine for violating the West Virginia Fair Housing Act. As part of the settlement, Walden was barred from nearly all contact with tenants for eight years, and if he had to make contact with a tenant he was required to fill out an incident report within 12 hours for the West Virginia Human Rights Commission to review. In September 2008, the Human Rights Commission alleged that Walden violated the terms of the settlement by harassing tenants, having contact with tenants when he wasn’t supposed to, and by not providing or filing some documents required by the settlement. The hearings were held between September and December 2008, but the judge has just recently ruled Walden to be contempt of the settlement agreement in four areas: 1) Intentionally initiated direct contact with tenants and improperly entered leased dwellings; 2) Failed to maintain complete and timely records related to tenant contact and dwelling entry; 3) Failed to maintain and provide tenant information; 4) Failed to provide notices of Fair Housing Rights to tenants. Walden was ordered to pay $5,000 for each violation to the Human Rights Commission. In February 2012, Walden was charged with conspiracy and entering without breaking after a tenant woke up to find him sitting on her bed and rubbing her leg while she slept. According to the DP’s article, that case is still pending.

And if anyone is interested, I have completed my Master’s research project, “Inspecting Sunnyside” – Creating a Blog About Off-Campus Student Housing and Student Issues. It’s now available to view on wvuScholar. Also, I’m graduating. Finally.

– Leann

West Virginia University’s number of expulsions in 2003 vs. 2005

While doing research for my thesis tonight, I found an article that I’ve been trying to find for a long time.

I remembered when I was in undergrad a freshman’s car was flipped and destroy as part of some celebrations after a big win. However, I couldn’t remember which time. I was in undergrad from 2002-2006, and there were at least three times I can remember fires being set. After West Virginia University’s win at Virginia Tech in 2002, fires were set in Morgantown. In 2003, there were fires set again when WVU beat Virginia Tech at home. And then in 2005 there were fires after a big basketball win. I don’t keep up with sports, so I couldn’t remember what game it was.

So tonight I found the golden article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review – “West Virginia expels 11 for rowdiness.”

Following the 2003 Virginia Tech win, more than 100 fires were set in Morgantown. More than 40 students were identified as being a part of those fires, but WVU only expelled 7, according to the article.

In 2005, 16 students were arrested or cited by Morgantown police and fire officials for violations such as illegal burning and public intoxication. Telephone poles were scorched and four cars were flipped.

(In the photo below, the person marked “me” is not actually me, but the person who took the photo.)

(Photo credit: http://www.rhythmism.com/forum/showthread.php?t=20828)

Of those 16 students, 11 were expelled. The other five were expected to face suspension or probation.

The article also mentioned that following the 2005 incident Morgantown considered a 17-step plan to deal unruly crowds, such as purchasing a traveling temporary holding facility so officers are not taken off the streets when making arrests.

Last month when city officials met with WVU officials, Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston said the main reason why they have to try to get rid of the large crowds instead of just starting to arrest people is because it takes officers off the street for 1.5 to 2.5 hours for one arrest.

What happened to that 17-step plan? Now I’m wondering what the other 16 steps are. I can’t find anything right now, but I’m going to keep looking. Does anyone remember anything about the plan?

– Leann

Hunt’s pay not likely to be reduced despite cuts to Sunnyside Up’s funding

Sunnyside Up may not have much money to work with during the next fiscal year.

The Dominion Post published an article in Sunday’s edition about the Sunnyside Up funding cuts, and spoke to Councilwoman Jenny Selin, who is also a member of the Sunnyside Up board of directors. Selin said that it is not likely that Executive Director Jim Hunt’s salary will be cut.

Hunt receives a salary of approximately $86,000.

Selin told the DP:

“Once you hire someone, you usually do not go back and ask them to take less.”

As previously reported, Morgantown City Council voted to cut Sunnyside Up’s funding first by 25 percent in early March, then again another 25 percent a couple weeks later. West Virginia University matches whatever the city pays, so that means the university will also be cutting 50 percent of funding.

Last year, Sunnyside Up received $100,000 from Morgantown and $100,000 from WVU, totaling the group’s funding to $200,000. After the cuts, the group will receive a total of $100,000 in funding for the next fiscal year.

After Hunt’s salary of about $86,000, that would leave the organization with approximately $14,000 to use for operation.

Hunt is also a member of Clarksburg City Council.

(Photo credit: www.cityofclarksburgwv.com)

According to the Clarksburg Exponent-Telegram, council members earn $2,500 per year. The article also states that “Clarksburg council members may also opt to receive health benefits through the city of Clarksburg.” At the time of the article, October 2010, Hunt was one of the five council members who claimed full benefits.

According to the Dominion Post, Hunt said that he “doesn’t receive any health insurance or retirement through Sunnyside Up,” and that about $10,000 of his salary is in lieu of those benefits.

The most recent tax forms for Sunnyside Up available on GuideStar are from 2010 (PDF available here). Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Total revenue: $204,842
  • Total expenses: $173,865
    • Salaries, compensation, employee benefits: $90,176
      • Hunt’s salary: $83,200
    • Professional fees and other payments to independent contractors: $25,309
    • Occupancy, rent, utilities and maintenance: $8,010
    • Printing, publications, postage and shipping: $4,008
    • Other expenses: $28,862

The organization is said to have savings in the bank, but will it be able to continue operating if it only receives approximately 14 percent of its usual funding?

– Leann

Huntington officials seek student involvement in city plans

Officials in Huntington, W.Va. are currently working on the city’s 2025 plan.

The comprehensive plan, Plan 2025, is updated every 10 years with new goals related to housing, aesthetic attractions and businesses.

A town hall meeting was scheduled on Marshall University’s campus to get feedback from students.

According to an article in The Parthenon, students were concerned with the location, cost, convenience and construction of housing.

Some students expressed that they preferred living in older housing to new housing developments because the older houses were charming and had more solid construction.

Another student also said it would be beneficial for both businesses and students if more people rented apartments above businesses in downtown Huntington.

The reason I brought up this article is that I think it’s great that Huntington officials ask students for their input on the city’s future plans.

Morgantown officials don’t typically seem to want input from students, especially when students cause trouble.

Most students may not be registered to vote here, but they still contribute to the economy. Students also make up approximately half of the city’s population for at least nine months out of the year.

Last week, a meeting was held to discuss a plan regarding the St. Patrick’s Day destruction in Sunnyside. The meeting was held during West Virginia University’s spring break. While the meeting did evolve into something bigger than was originally planned, it could have been beneficial to get student input.

WVU Student Government Association President Jason Bailey was the only student in attendance, but he didn’t speak at the meeting.

Threats of suspending and expelling students hasn’t stopped street fires. It wouldn’t hurt if the city and WVU asked students to give input on why they believe fires are started and what could be done to deter people from continuing the tradition.

I want to know what you think – do you think Morgantown officials should seek student feedback on issues related to the city? Why or why not?

– Leann

City and WVU officials agree that culture in Morgantown needs to be changed to stop fires

Some members of Morgantown’s City Council met today with the city’s fire chief, fire marshall and police chief, as well as several representatives from West Virginia University to discuss how to prevent students from setting street fires.

The thing they all agreed on – the culture needs to change.

Morgantown City Manager Terrance Moore started the meeting by saying it was originally meant to be for officials to discuss protocols and follow-up strategies for the fires that were set during St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Morgantown. They then extended the invitation to some property owners and representatives from West Virginia University.

City and university officials are used to fires taking place after games, but St. Patrick’s Day took them by surprise, Moore said.

“It’s gotten to a point where Morgantown is having this expeience not because of WVU students specifically, but because of the reputation,” Moore said. “[The problem has gone] above and beyond WVU students, and it’s been that way for a while.”

Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston was given the floor first. He said the department had every available resource out working the night of St. Patrick’s Day – day and afternoon shifts stayed over and the evening shift came in early. The city currently has 62 police officers.

One thing he wanted to make clear is how officers handle situations like a large crowd of people rioting. In videos posted online, people can be seen throwing objects at officers. Preston was asked why those people weren’t arrested.

“We don’t have the manpower to make all those arrests,” Preston said.

When an officer makes an arrest, that takes them off the streets patrolling for 1.5 to 2.5 hours. Instead, officers try to stop or clear out the large crowd first, then address smaller issues.

Preston said he still had reserves he didn’t have to use, but he wasn’t satisfied with conduct of rioters or the results. Tear gas and bean bags were not used to clear out the crowds because overreaction would have escalated the situation.

Deputy Mayor Bane then asked if the police were helping the firefighters because some were being restricted from reaching fires and had objects thrown at them.

Morgantown Fire Chief Mark Casavasos said that was a common occurrence for them.

However, there were several areas where firefighters and police officers were on the scene working together, Preston said.

Preston blamed the culture of Morgantown for making people think it’s acceptable to burn couches, pointing out that businesses sell candles in the shape of couches (see below).

“We’re allowing and perpetuating this culture,” Preston said. “One bad weekend is only symptomatic of the culture.”

Corey Farris, WVU Director of Housing and Interim Dean of Students, said the university is not happy with the incidents, and that it’s not what they’re teaching students to do.

According to the student code of conduct, the university can take actions against students who break the law on or off campus. Once it has been reported to the university that a student has broke the law, the student is sent an e-mail, and within about two weeks will have to attend a student conduct hearing. The decision is then made whether or not to suspend or expel the student.

The university and city police alert the university when students break the law. Farris said they also catch students through posts on Facebook and by reading the newspaper.

Assistant Vice President of University Communications Becky Lofstead said that the university needs to be more proactive by publicizing the number of students who are expelled or suspended so that students understand that there are consequences.

Both Farris and WVU Police Chief Bob Roberts agreed that alcohol is the reason fires are started.

There were “far less problems” when bars were open to 2 a.m. instead of 3 a.m., Roberts said. Now the WVU police are doing more DUI arrests than ever.

“You have a tradition,” Casavasos said. “As much as you don’t want it, you have it. It’s not going away. I can see it carrying on 20, 30, 40 years.

“The problem won’t go to sleep following large scale events. We’ll continue to have this problem. We have to change this culture. The more we try to push it, the more they’ll do it. This is becoming a culture with them and a way to celebrate.”

Chief Casavasos had three suggestions to reduce fires:

  1. Give jail time for setting fires
  2. Double fines from $1,000 to $2,000
  3. Bring in the West Virginia State Fire Marshall because they are able to make arrests, unlike the city fire marshal

He continued to say that over the 14-15 years he’s served as a firefighter, the biggest problem is house parties, and he’s seeing them grow. He’s pulled 200-300 people out of two-bedroom apartments, and at one residence in Sunnyside there were 1,000 people inside.

The issue with having so many people in the houses is that the overcrowding could cause the house to collapse. Many of the houses are very old and aren’t built to hold that amount of people.

Bane expressed his concern already over next year’s home game against the University of Oklahoma and what kind of chaos will occur if WVU wins. He suggested a campaign going into the next school year that would show statistics of students suspended/expelled for setting fires.

Lofstead said they are already in process of doing something along those lines.

Hearings will begin next week for students arrested during St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

– Leann

Sunnyside Up to form advisory committee to teach students to ‘learn not to burn’

Sunnyside Up lost 50 percent of its funding during March. To make matters worse, thousands of dollars worth of damage to the Sunnyside neighborhood took place over St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

Sunnyside Up Executive Director Jim Hunt said of the 140 Dumpsters that are in Sunnyside, 40 of them have been burnt and need to be repainted. It costs between $150-200 to paint one Dumpster.

Some of the new sidewalks were also damaged. In summer 2011, sidewalks were replaced throughout Sunnyside. Hunt said that replacing one piece that was burnt is estimated to cost $5,000.

“It’s an expensive thing,” Hunt said. “The idea of it is – are you going to go and replace this brand new sidewalk that had a burnt place that will cause a weak spot? If we don’t replace it – which we probably won’t because of budget issues – you have a brand new sidewalk just put in and it’s already damaged.”

When asked about how the recent cuts will affect Sunnyside Up, Hunt said that it will continue to operate based on the funds that it’s provided.

“In some ways we don’t have much choice,” Hunt said. “We do the things we need to do in our mission based upon what money is provided. Obviously, some of the things we currently do will have priority. The board will have to determine which ones they want to do and which they won’t be able to do.”

One of the fairly costly services the group provides is employing Manpower and contract workers to remove debris from sidewalks and graffiti from buildings.

“Those items are fairly costly and we’ll have to determine how much of that we’ll have to do going forward,” Hunt said.

Sunnyside Up’s mission isn’t to eliminate fires and graffiti, but to reduce and control them, Hunt said.

With graffiti, the goal is to have it painted over within two days of spotting it. Hunt said that it’s impossible to completely eliminate it, but if they keep up on repainting, it will reduce the problem.

In order to try to eliminate street and furniture fires, Sunnyside Up is creating an advisory committee for Learn Not to Burn. (press release available here)

Hunt said that at 61-years-old, he is a not a peer to West Virginia University students. The advisory committee will be made up of current and former students who understand the mindset of their peers.

The idea came about right after St. Patrick’s Day weekend – Hunt said he had e-mails and phone calls from a couple dozen people asking what they could do to help.

“They love the community, the university, and they feel like they have something to give back,” Hunt said.

Pure enforcement alone won’t stop the burning, he said. There are approximately 4,000 students living in Sunnyside and between 10-12 police officers on duty for the whole city.

“What we need is people who care about the community and will discourage burning – you can drink, you can party, you can scream, but you cannot burn,” Hunt said.

In just a few minutes, things can get out of a control. This past weekend, nine people died from a house fire in Charleston. There were no working smoke detectors in the home.

Hunt said he doesn’t want an incident like this to have to happen in order for people to learn it’s not okay to set fires.

“Burning is just not a acceptable way of celebrating or partying,” Hunt said.

City officials were upset over the “I’m Shmacked” video that was filmed in Morgantown on St. Patrick’s Day weekend. The video mostly showed students drinking, but there were also some brief scenes of fires. Hunt said he thinks there’s been a bit of overreaction to the video.

“For the first three months of the school year, Sunnyside had been surprisingly without incident,” Hunt said. “During the first three months of 2012, we’ve had students who volunteered – 300 who volunteered [to clean up]. A lot of good stuff happening.”

But then 35 fires were set St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

“We had two days with [fires] that could have been much worse,” Hunt said. “It’s not to say it wasn’t serious. … For 88 of the 90 days, they were as good as students as you could find.”

Hunt said there would have been fires on the weekend anyway, but he heard reports of people driving around ahead of the I’m Shmacked film crew, and that maybe only a handful of people were actually starting the fires.

“If you’re going to bash the students for those two days, you have to give them credit for the 88 days they weren’t burning,” Hunt said.

Below is Sunnyside Up’s Facebook status, which was posted Monday afternoon.

– Leann