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On West Virginia’s 161st birthday, Gov. Jim Justice came to the Capitol Rotunda to unveil four historical murals first envisioned by the building’s original architect nearly a century ago. 

And, of course, he brought Babydog along.

“She’s made a real contribution to this state,” Justice said, sitting on his stool beside the English Bulldog that accompanies him to state and campaign events. “She’s made you smile and that’s really important.”

As the governor and his dog looked up at the mural several stories above them, they would see what every visitor to the Capitol will see: a scene at Seneca Rocks, a noisy mock serenade of a newlywed couple … and a dog that bears a striking resemblance to Babydog.

The governor and his top officials have faced mounting questions in recent days: How did his pet come to be included in a historical mural?

No one should really be surprised.

Oversight of renovations and additions to West Virginia’s historic Capitol building has been skirted or hampered by confusing rules for years.

Multiple times, legislative auditors have warned that changes were made without approval from the Capitol Building Commission, and that the state law spelling out the commission’s jurisdiction was confusing and needed to be clarified.

The commission’s vice chair warned in 2005 that it had no way to enforce its authority and that the pattern of permanent building changes made without approval could have “disastrous effects.”

In an interview earlier this week, Randall Reid-Smith, secretary of the Department of Arts, Culture and History, said an informal group of Justice administration officials reviewed drafts of the murals and decided that Babydog should be included. 

The dog was born in 2019, long after the murals were envisioned by the Capitol’s original architect Cass Gilbert nearly a century ago. But, as Reid-Smith told MetroNews: “Babydog is history.”

To justify the new murals, state officials have pointed to a 2010 vote on the project by the commission tasked with approving any physical changes to the Capitol building. But in the years before the murals were first approved, state agencies were confused about what projects required approval and the commission did not properly document its decisions.

Under state law, all plans for “substantial physical changes” to the Capitol complex must be reviewed and approved by the Capitol Building Commission. Any permanent, physical change to the appearance of the Capitol building is subject to commission approval.

Lawmakers gave the commission authority to set policies and rules for what projects fall under its jurisdiction. The commission meets quarterly and is governed by the state’s open meetings act. One of the appointed members serves as secretary and is responsible for keeping the board’s minutes. Final acts shall be recorded in a public journal.

But in the years before the mural project was approved in 2010, three different reports from legislative auditors found that the commission wasn’t reviewing projects that it should and was not properly documenting its decisions. 

In 1998, state legislative auditors wrote that agencies often undertake projects without commission approval and that the commission did not provide the public with adequate information about its final decisions. In 2001, auditors followed up, finding that the commission had improved at documenting its decisions but that the commission had not provided clear definitions of which projects required approval.

 In 2005, auditors wrote that problems persisted. State agencies were confused about what projects must be reviewed and the commission needed to improve how it documented its decisions. At the time, the agency’s authority was also being undermined by the larger Department of Administration that was undertaking many projects.

Over a three-year period, state officials made 85 changes to the Capitol complex. Many should have been reviewed by the commission, but were not, auditors said. 

Department of Administration officials interpreted the commission’s rules to require approval for major changes that might alter the original state of the building.

But the commission, administration officials complained, had “taken it to the point that any change such as tree removal and repairs or changes to any state owned building must be approved by them.”

Auditors also found that the commission’s public journal was sometimes missing essential details like whether a decision was made and whether the state agency was notified in writing. 

“Overall the journal language and format do not provide accountability if a decision were challenged,” auditors wrote six years before the murals were approved.

“State agencies are not complying with Commission review requirements,” they added. “If coordination were enhanced, the Commission’s ability to protect the capitol complex would improve.”

In response, the commission’s vice-chair wrote that it would comply with the recommendations laid out within the 2005 audit. He also warned that the commission had no way to enforce its decisions if a state agency did not seek its approval.

“If this pattern continues, it could have disastrous effects on the Capitol Complex,” wrote Chad Proudfoot, who is now a historian and archivist for WVU Jackson’s Mill camp.

Proudfoot also said that the commission had tried to write new rules to clear up the confusion about what projects required its approval. The Secretary of Administration refused to submit them for legislative approval.

“The commission sees itself not as a barrier to progress, but as a facilitator to ensure the safe and regulated transition of a living, breathing, and changing complex for future generations of West Virginians,” he wrote.

Following the 2018 Supreme Court scandal over excessive spending on office decor, lawmakers mandated that the commission must approve any “substantial physical changes” to the Capitol Complex. But the specific rules about what projects require commission approval have not been updated by the Secretary of Administration.

New rules clarifying what must be approved by the commission have not been established, and so far the Babydog mural doesn’t seem to have policymakers interested in revisiting the matter.

Sen. Jack Woodrum, a Republican from Summers County who chairs the Government Organization Committee, said that he hadn’t heard discussion of revising the state law empowering the Capitol Building Commission. And generally, he said he was OK with Babydog in the mural because of how Justice talks about her.

“He’s always had a real nice way he went about describing the dog and how the dog loves everybody,” Woodrum said. “And so I didn’t have any issue with it.”

Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, was not available for comment but spokesperson Ann Ali said she had not heard of legislative changes being proposed yet or discussed at this point.

Justice, Reid-Smith and the Department of Administration did not answer questions about whether they would seek to clarify the role of the commission.

Contact reporter Duncan Slade at [email protected]

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