How the Alderson Town Council reacted to the recent arrest of Mayor and Judge Travis Copenhaver was the only thing on the mind of visitors to the Thursday, September 9, meeting of council.
|Alderson Town Council and the concerned crowd.|
Typically appearing in person to conduct the meeting, Copenhaver was not present. Instead, Recorder Betty Thomas served as acting mayor, running the meeting. Although still presently mayor, Copenhaver tendered a resignation as judge to councilmembers via text message, one the council unanimously voted to approve, on the condition that it was an official resignation.
“I would entertain someone making the motion that we accept the resignation of Travis Copenhaver as municipal judge for the town of Alderson in the event as such that the resignation is not conditional, [and] direct the town attorney to work with the Greenbrier County Prosecutor to investigation for involuntary removal pursuant to West Virginia Code 6-6-7,” said Alderson Acting Mayor Betty Thomas. “Municipal Clerk Corianna Spinks will be serving and doing the duties of municipal judge.”
“So moved,” replied Councilmember Charlie Lobban. The entire Alderson Town Council voted unanimously to accept the motion.
This was the first of two motions concerning Copenhaver. The second establishes another meeting, open to the public, where the council will consider how to move forward following the arrest.
“I would entertain a motion for a special meeting to address criminal allegations against the mayor of Alderson, Travis Copenhaver, for September 20, 2021, at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall, with the City Attorney to work with the Greenbrier County Prosecutor to investigate the [applicability] of West Virginia Code 6-6-7 to the current facts,” Thomas said.
“So moved,” Lobban replied a second time. Council again unanimously approved the motion. Following a request from the audience, the location could be changed in order to accommodate an expected crowd.
|Acting Mayor Betty Thomas (center, facing camera)|
City Attorney Grady Ford explained the situation.
“Just to be clear, … the council is not lawfully empowered to remove the mayor. The city judge has tended his resignation … which was accepted … There is a specific procedure that must be followed and council has directed me, along with the Greenbrier County Prosecutor’s Office, to investigate and see the feasibility of those procedures. … There is a statutory procedure that we’ve discussed previously, and it must be followed in order to remove an elected official. … They cannot do so over the objection of an elected official. … That’s not to say someone can’t resign or quit, but as far as the ability to remove, … no city council, frankly, has that power at a meeting like this.”
The cited state code highlights the “procedure for removal of county, school district and municipal officers having fixed terms, appeal, grounds, cost.” The specifics of the procedure are also expected to be addressed at the upcoming meeting.
The meeting will also give Copenhaver a chance to address the concerns.
Before going into executive session to discuss the judgeship resignation and possible litigation, three speakers addressed council. The first was Dawn Painter, an Alderson resident.
“Not very long ago, [Copenhaver] did something very similar to this that caused several people’s lives to be changed forever. Mac [Brackenridge] will never, ever walk again. … [Fredrick Tolliver] was put in jail for a long time for something that should have never happened. As a result of being in jail, Mr. Tolliver got pancreatitis and is now dead. He was taking care of his grandson. … That was a case of this same kind of thing, bullying. … This same kind of thing has happened again. … It’s happening to another family. You all need to please, please, take control of this. If you love Alderson at all, you don’t have any other choice. I know there are other cases of Travis bullying people or doing things inappropriate sexually. Please. Take care of our town. Take care of the people who trust you or we’re going to be the laughing stock of the nation.”
She also pointed to how this affects Alderson’s image in the wider world.
“He is representing us to the world. … It is an issue in Chicago, where our mayor and our city judge were named criminal of the day. It’s on [lawandcrime.com on September 8, Dan] Abram’s website, who runs Live PD every Friday night. There is no sense in this. We gave a reprieve before, and hoped things would be learned and behavior would stop. But it hasn’t stopped – it’s just going to continue and continue and continue. … When he was named criminal of the day, they were making fun of us. … Right now the biggest draw we have is a prison. We’re trying to get businesses in here. If businesses see this, how many businesses do you think want to be here? … I love this town, but I’m embarrassed.”
Painter also highlighted that the speech made her uncomfortable, in part due to the personal connections and history their family shares.
“I really don’t like to speak in front of people. I have known the mayor before the mayor knew he was alive. … This is something that is very dear and painful to me to have to think about. … I cannot say, as a parent, I could condone this type of behavior out of my children. … There is a code of ethics. I had that code as a law enforcement officer. They have that code as a law enforcement officer. Travis has that code of ethics. It’s not just whenever you feel like it. It’s 24/7, 365, and you all need to keep that in your mind.
|Dawn Painter (standing) addresses Council.|
The second speaker was Herbert Burdette, a regular face at Alderson Town Council meetings.
“You all have been through this before. You know what it takes to accept him or not accept him. Travis is my kin and he’s done remarkable things for this community, but you’ve got to look outside of that. He realized, in the leadership position he’s in, this social life of his is under a microscope. … His heart is in this town, but his conduct is not. Thank you all for your time.”
The third speaker, Jessie Guills, is also a regular at Town Council meetings.
“I have basically, with help [from many individuals] , led youth sports in this town for the last five years. I just left the football field, explaining to three (expletive) nine-year-olds’ what’s going on because it’s affecting our kids. I’ve been before you before. I was personally attacked by Travis myself. I got over it. I will not, I will push to the end, and do whatever I’ve got to do. These kids are just like mine. They have been since the day I took them. And it’s affecting eight, nine, ten, year-old kids now. … It’s rolling downhill and that’s our future.”
Several of the speakers referred to the council’s response to the June 2020 meeting of Town Council, in which former Alderson Chief of Police Jeremy Bennett and many members of the public came out to speak against Copenhaver.
During the June 2020 meeting, Bennett explained his interpretation of events following the same shooting Painter referenced.
“You know what this all stems back to?” Bennet said. “The Monday after Mac got shot, you had a meeting in here [City Hall]. A mandatory meeting to tell your side of the story. I left because I knew it was all B.S. … Once I got here, you said ‘let’s go for a little ride’ in which you took me, while I was on duty, in your personal vehicle, took me outside of the city to your in-laws to retrieve items for your children. Then we went to your house and at your house, and I can prove this if anyone wants to hear it, you went to your bedroom and returned with [a] jacket. Inside that jacket was a bloody phone. You handed it to me and told me I needed to dispose this for you. I said ‘what is this?’ You said it was Mac’s phone. You asked me to take it up the hill, throw it over the hill, call the state police and say I found it. From the time that I refused to do your dirty work, you’ve told me multiple times you don’t trust me and sooner or later I’m gone from here. That’s what this all comes down to is you’re retaliating against me.”
The next month, Copenhaver addressed many of the accusations.
“I will tell you now – nobody spoke the truth when the rumors started flying,” Copenhaver said. “The Constitution affords us the right to remain silent and every two years this group and I take that right seriously. … By standing silent, [we] irritated people so bad. When my indictments happened, when my indictments were dismissed, when all of the stuff that was brought up came out. I don’t know what else to tell you but [that] next year is an election year. Move forward with running your candidate. … People that came forward in what I considered a lynch mob had no respect for this agency or governing body and I failed as your mayor to not keep that meeting in order, that’s why I will never have that type of meeting again.”
By February 2021, Bennett was out, with then-Lieutenant J.R. Rusty Byer Jr named chief of police. At the time, Copenhaver explained former chief Jeremy Bennett would be able to return to his position after his three-year deployment with the National Guard comes to a close and the position change was, in part, due to an ongoing budget shortfall.
“Effective today, Lieutenant Byer has been made Chief Byer,” said Copenhaver. “Jeremy Bennett will return to his former position of chief of police upon his return and proper notification. As of today, … Chief Beyer has turned in his acceptance. As such, you have four full-time officers, one part-time.”
In July 2020, council approved a letter during the following meeting, addressing their response and reaction to several of the incidents, including the language used in many text messages brought forward from Copenhaver.
“The use of text communications and social media by Mayor Copenhaver to forward ugly and improper comments is regretted by the Mayor and condemned by this Council (also condemned is the manner in which such comments were brought to light before this Council at the July 9, 2020, Council Meeting). Having said that, Council determines that, based on the information at hand, no official action on the part of Mayor Copenhaver warrants invoking the statutorily prescribed method for removal by Council.”
The letter also contains more information about the previous time Ford was asked to look into removal.
“The Council of the Town of Alderson took seriously the issues raised by those who spoke at the July 9, 2020, Council meeting,” the letter reads. “With regard to inquiries regarding the removal of an elected official, more specifically, the Mayor, by council, we consulted with Grady Ford, the Town’s attorney, at length. West Virginia [State Code] details the specific mechanism by which the Council (or other specified people or entities) may remove an elected official. By law, elected officials are subject to removal only for (1) official misconduct, (2) neglect of duty, or (3) incompetence, each of which are defined by [the code]. … Issues predating the last municipal election are not appropriate grounds for removal and no other issues raised at the July 9, 2020, rise to the statutory requirements necessary to support a removal action. … Under these circumstances, we see no value in pursuing such a course of action.”
As council entered executive session, Burdette offered a prayer that seemed to be well received by everyone in the room.
“Let’s bow our heads,” Burdette prayed. “Heavenly Father, please go with the leaders of our community as they go into private session. Also, Heavenly Father, go with the members of this community, so no matter what happens, what their decision is, the hardship does not divide us, but makes us stronger.”