Dozens of people turned out to a meeting discussing the possible removal of Mayor Travis Copenhaver.
The meeting of the Alderson Town Council took place on Monday, Sept. 20, at the Alderson Community Center. The only item listed on the agenda was “discuss and consider criminal allegations lodged against the mayor.”
After the meeting was opened, Copenhaver highlighted that he would not be answering questions around the criminal case, which concerns an alleged June assault. He was charged with felony burglary, conspiracy, child neglect and misdemeanor assault.
“I need you all to realize that this is a current, pending matter, a criminal action taken by the Circuit Court in Greenbrier County,” said Copenhaver. “I cannot make a public comment. I can’t say anything. In a criminal case you are innocent until proven guilty. This is a guarantee under the state and federal constitutions. My attorney is John Bryant and if you want to ask questions about my personal case, direct them to my attorney’s office.”
In the previous meeting of the Town Council, Recorder Betty Thomas served as the acting mayor for the length of the meeting. This was not because Copenhaver stepped down or was removed from office.
“I was on a vacation that was scheduled back in January,” Copenhaver explained. “The recorder, as is customary, filled in my absence at that meeting that was the issue. She did not do anything to remove me from office and I [am resuming] my duties [as mayor] at this council meeting. That’s where we are tonight, I was absent from one meeting. I was in Palmetto Beach, Florida, if anyone wants to question it. I was not here.”
According to Copenhaver’s $5,000 personal recognizance bond paperwork, he “may leave the state of West Virginia without written approval by this court,” instead mandated that he may have “no direct or indirect contact with victims as stated in the complaint.”
|Alderson Mayor Travis Copenhaver|
The meeting then turned to a discussion on how Copenhaver could be removed from office.
“City Attorney Grady Ford is on hand tonight,” Copenhaver said. “Grady do you have anything you’d like to say?”
“No, but I have previously been asked by the council to investigate the manner of options in relation to these matters. I prepared a legal memo detailing some of the options council might have in the situation. … The council may pass a motion, [but] they do not have the authority to remove the mayor. They can pass that judgment but the only way they can curtail and remove an elected official is [this prescribed way]. They can make motions to do anything but in the absence of an agreement from the elected official, [the council cannot single-handedly remove the mayor.] That is the law. The council cannot cause the mayor to step aside [directly].”
According to West Virginia State Code 6-6-7, elected officials are subject to removal only for official misconduct, neglect of duty, or incompetence. There are multiple parties that can make that decision.
“Who is it that can bring these removal actions? Under the same code section, one is the council, the governing body. … The second is the prosecuting attorney of the county or municipality. … And finally, if an appropriate number of qualified petitioners bring a petition for removal under this statute. Qualified petitioners are defined as people who vote in the previous election. You have to meet a certain threshold … and in a class four town like Alderson, you have to get the lesser of either 50 [registered voters] or 10% of registered voters [20 voters out of the 200 who voted in the last particular election].”
From there, the case would be considered by judges on several levels.
“It would be reviewed by the Circuit Judge in either Greenbrier or Monroe county to see if it rose to the level where it would go forward. … A panel of three judges would serve as an arbitrator, a fact finder, of the essentially a trial on whether or not these allegations constituted … were official grounds for removal.”
If the petition fails, however, it would come with costs.
“If the elected officer prevails, they’re entitled to attorney’s fees occurred in the prosecution of the action. The party who brings the action bears the cost of prosecuting it. If the council were to initiate such a proceeding, they would bear the cost, … and if they were unsuccessful, they would bear the cost of the attorney’s fees. … The same is true if the prosecutor brings the case or a qualified petitioner brings the case.”
|City Attorney Grady Ford|
Drawing contrast with the last similar public meeting in summer 2020, Copenhaver required each speaker to sign in and kept their speech under five minutes, saying “We are going to keep this, as we have, with five minutes to speak. Everyone that signed in gets their opportunity to speak.”
The first speaker was Ryan Keesee.
“I am an attorney here in town and call this home. … I was here during the last [incident] caused by the mayor and felt helpless to do anything about it. This time around, I came to the last council meeting and several folks asked me to speak on their behalf at [this] meeting. … This has always been a nice, sleepy little town. In a sleepy, nice little town, you want your town government to be effective, to be ethical, to be quiet, and frankly, it should be boring. We don’t have that in our town and it’s all because of the actions of our mayor.
In two incidents, our mayor has, regardless of his description of what he did or didn’t do, found himself at a place in time where he shouldn’t be. Collecting a debt in person, according to news reports. My question, that hasn’t been answered, … is what in the world he thought he was doing being there. There collecting debt in person, which is not the proper way to [do that], you do it by court action, in writing. I know a little bit about that because that’s what I do as an attorney. I collect debt. I foreclose on property. I do property law. I’ve been doing it for 13, 14 years and the one thing you don’t do is go in person to somebody and collect. It never ends well. So I do not understand why Mr. Copenhaver decided to go in person to do this.
The question that comes to my mind is if Mr. Copenhaver respects the rule of law and respects that it applies to him as well as the residents. It appears that he doesn’t. Unless Mr. Copenhaver resigns, … or 20 voting members of the town must take penal action through the statute. I’ve been told by people standing up to speak that the petition has been [going around] town. I’m urging council to take whatever actions are necessary to have Mr. Copenhaver removed as mayor. Those signatures, as of this evening, are 125. … So the people we need to file an action around this council exist, so my statement today, Mr. Copenhaver, is that we’re expressing our outrage. … Your term as mayor is over, either if you resign soon or by court action later. That 120 names represents a voting block against you. I believe Satan himself would be elected over you in this town.”
Keesee received applause at the end of his comments. He referred to a petition brought by the second to last speaker, Jennifer Fry, who said, “We the People of Alderson, WV, demand that this Council take whatever steps are necessary to remove Travis Copenhaver as mayor for his continued criminal and unethical behavior,” reads the petition, which has “over 120” signatures “in city limits and Alderson addresses,” according to Fry. The group has also been in “contact with” Greenbrier County Prosecuting Attorney Patrick Via.
Next was Herbert Burdette, a frequent face at Town Council, who said “as the mayor of this town, you’ve done wonders, but your conduct outside of that office is s***.”
|Herbert Burdette (left) and Ryan Keesee (right)|
The third speaker was David Hambrick, who spoke up on behalf of thinking before acting.
“I’m a 50 year resident of the town of Alderson,” said Hambrick. “There are plenty of fellow good citizens here that are ready to condemn the mayor, but there’s always more than one side to most situations, so I wanted to say a few words in support of Travis. … All we have are accusations and we cannot make decisions based on accusations. … As the mayor, he’s been a good executive, he’s made some difficult decisions. … He has achieved substantial accomplishments in municipal administration. He’s improved the water system, the sewer system. … He skillfully guided us through multiple floods. … He’s been, in short, an outstanding mayor.”
Both Jessie Willis and Dawn Painter, who spoke at the previous Town Council meeting, both spoke again in opposition to Copenhaver.
“When it comes to elected officials or county officials or state employees, Grady [Ford] is reminding us that they’re allowed, and he’s allowed, to start [filing motions continuing the hearings to further along dates] until we don’t have any money,” Willis said. “The only way to remove [Copenhaver] from office is going to cost somebody a lot of money.”
“When I was at the meeting, I was a little premature,” Painter said. “I did say things and I believed that Travis was [guilty]. I do believe we have a system of innocent until proven guilty. … We still have not gotten over [the shooting] and now it’s here again. Maybe not in the same capacity, but we are in town again, in the news again, for the same type of behavior. … I also understand that when you are in a position of authority, you are the head policeman in this town. … You don’t seem to have any regard for the law. … If you truly love Alderson, and you want what’s best for Alderson, you would step down.”
Fry pointed to the conduct of those working for the city.
“If any other town employee had felony charges accused, what would be the proper channel for [them]? Would they be treated in the same manner? What holds you to a higher standard than the employees you supervise?”
The final speaker was former mayoral rival Roger Bennett.
“Copenhaver has [done this town a ton of good], and I can agree with that. However, if you want people to remember the good you do, if you do that much bad. Do people remember that you’re a preacher or do they remember you as the preacher that molested a kid? He can say what he wants but if his actions were different that night, Mac wouldn’t be in the situation he’s in. I think everybody agrees with that.”
After a round of applause, he continued.
“If you care about this town, step down. Do one decent thing and step down. If you’re innocent of the charges you’re charged with, and I’m not saying you’re guilty or you’re innocent because I’ve no idea. … But the right thing to do, you didn’t do last time. This time, you have a chance. Do the right thing and step down for this town. Let the muddy water clear and run again. Run on your record. But do the right thing for the town and step down. … It will save the town a lot of money and some people a lot of ache.”
|Former mayoral candidate Roger Bennett (podium) speaks.
Although not a speaker, the daughter and grandson of Frederick Tolliver spoke to The West Virginia Daily News after the meeting.
“Emotions are running so high because I’ve never been in the same room with these men,” said Andrea Tolliver, his daughter. “I’ve never looked at them. It’s ridiculous. How can he be ignorant and arrogant at the same time? He’s up there laughing and smirking. … I don’t know the exact words of [his oath of office], but it’s along the lines of protect and serve and uphold the laws of this community. Nowhere in that oath does it say torment the citizens of this community. At my father’s pre-trial hearing, these men, that’s the exact words used. Why were you at Fred Tolliver’s house? To torment him, were these gentleman’s words. … it’s a great shame. I hope this time he can man up and step down. You’ve gotten away with it too many times.”
“I think it’s embarrassing,” said Tyler Tolliver, Fred’s grandson who was present the night of the shooting. “For the town and for a grown-a** man to be doing that. Tyler Tolliver.
When asked what he father would think of the situation, Andrea Tolliver explained “I think he would say exactly what I said—it’s just a great shame that this has happened again, that these men were allowed to do it again. He took a stand to try to stop it. Now the citizens have to stop it. They’re behaving like predators at this point. They’re continuing to do it over and over again. … Until someone puts an end to it, they’ll do it again. Their history speaks for itself. … My dad was not only a hero to us, he was a hero to this country. My dad is a decorated war hero and to just disregard that. My dad did more by the time he was 17 than these men have done in their whole lives.”
|The meeting was held in the Alderson Community Center|
When asked for comment after the meeting, Copenhaver provided a letter from his attorney, Bryan.
I am counsel for Travis Lee Copenhaver in regards to the above-styled criminal action currently pending in the Magistrate Court of Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Accordingly, I have advised him to make no public or private statements to any individual or entity regarding the charges. This is a matter of routine in any pending criminal case.
As always, the defendant in a pending criminal case in America is innocent until proven guilty. These are guarantees under the state and federal constitutions. My client absolutely maintains his innocence and is confident that after being provided with his constitutionally-required due process, that he will be vindicated of the allegations. While this process takes place, my client will continue to serve as the mayor of the Town of Alderson, as he has done for the past eight and a half years. He has resigned as a municipal judge in the Town of Alderson, until such time as the pending charges are resolved.
Any questions about this may be directed to my office. Thank you for your patience. My client looks forward to getting his day in court, and being able to put this difficult time behind him.