Three commission candidates on ballot

Now that it’s a three-way race, the campaign for Hancock County commissioner gives voters a choice among a professional photographer, a retired chiropractor and an inspector for a titanium producer.

The three candidates–Paul Rex Cowey III, Gregory Baldt and John Crow–are running to succeed Commissioner Mike Swartzmiller, who is retiring after 12 years in office.

Whoever wins on Nov. 8 will have six years to work on his priorities, although the candidates have declined to take strong positions on such issues as the operation of the Hancock County Animal Shelter and the impact of the Clean Air Regulation.

Paul Rex Cowey III

Cowey, 54, of Weirton, said attending commission meetings since January has given him insights into the workings of county government. It also has given him a front-row seat to the ongoing controversy over the commissioners’ takeover of the animal shelter.

Although he doesn’t want to second-guess commissioners, Cowey said, “I don’t understand why some things were done the way they were done. I don’t know why you fix things that aren’t broken.”

Commissioners took over operation of the animal shelter from the HCAS Foundation on July 1 after receiving no competitive bids. The foundation board declined to bid on the contract because of new wording on euthanasia, intake waiting lists and adoption fees that it considered unacceptable. Since then, foundation board members and their supporters have criticized commissioners in their regular meetings about their decision.

Two outstanding issues include whether animal shelter levy revenue from past years remains with the commission and whether commissioners improperly hired animal shelter employees before advertising the positions. The matters have been referred to the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office and the West Virginia Ethics Commission respectively.

Cowey said he believes commissioners’ hands were tied by the fact that no bids were received. “It’s a shame we can’t work together,” he said.

On the smoking ban adopted by the Hancock County health board in 2014, Cowey said gaming exemptions, such as the ones in place in Ohio County, would make sense from a business standpoint. The smoking regulation, which went into effect in July 2015, applies to all places of employment, enclosed public places and certain outdoor spaces.

The proprietor of Kathleen & Paul’s Portrait Gallery in Weirton, Cowey said he would spend time in office promoting economic development, fostering a business-friendly atmosphere and keeping young people in Hancock County.

Cowey believes the two biggest challenges facing the county are the lack of economic growth and the “epidemic” drug problem.

Although he lives in Weirton, Cowey grew up in Chester and graduated from Oak Glen High School in 1979. He has been a county election commissioner for the past four elections and serves on the board of Jefferson County Christian School in Wintersville, Ohio.

“I’ve got a better grasp on what’s happening countywide … on helping both the north and south end. I feel I represent the entire county,” he said.

The Democratic candidate for commissioner, Cowey defeated Philip Rujak in the May primary.

Gregory A. Baldt

Although he’s the Republican candidate, Baldt, 67, of Weirton, said he has an independent streak that comes from being a relative newcomer to Hancock County.

Baldt and his wife, Liz, chairwoman of the Hancock County Republican Executive Committee, moved to Weirton from Arizona in 2003. While in Arizona, he worked as a chiropractor and an independent medical consultant, publishing articles in several medical journals.

Baldt said Hancock County’s biggest problem is that it stays stuck in the 20th century, when it was a leader in steel production. He looks at riverfront communities such as Homestead, Pa., another steel mill town, as examples of what Weirton and other Hancock County communities can do with their own riverfronts.

“Hancock County hasn’t got the message that things have changed,” he said. “What’ll happen is this: We either control events, or events control us. We had a one-trick pony, and the pony has died–and no one seems to realize it.”

Baldt believes the future of Hancock County is with the oil and gas industry, and that the role of commissioner is to be an economic development facilitator. He wants to seek the input of experts and professionals who can steer Hancock County in the right direction.

“I think we need some serious changes,” he said. “The main function (of the commissioner) is to coordinate not only local issues but also outside issues. We don’t live in a vacuum: We need to talk to professional people to see what ideas they have.”

On the animal shelter and the smoking ban, each of which he calls the “crisis du jour,” Baldt said too much time has been spent in disputation and not enough on finding solutions.

“You have to have some sort of reasonable sit-down and talk and find out what works,” he said, noting that he will enter the office with “a clean slate.”

Baldt said Hancock County residents have to be willing to face the “pain of change. … From the animal shelter issue to the non-smoking disaster, I will bring a new mindset to the office.”

John Crow

Crow, 63, of Weirton, filed as an independent candidate in July and believes his candidacy is gaining steam in a season of growing disenchantment with the major political parties.

Crow said he first began thinking about running early in the year, when some friends approached him about the idea. He has never run for public office before.

“I decided that at this point in my life, it was time to get involved and make a positive difference,” he said. “It seemed like the right time.”

A 1971 graduate of Weir High School, Crow attended West Virginia University and worked at Weirton Steel for 20 years. He currently works at TIMET, of Toronto, Ohio, as an inspector of titanium.

Crow believes Hancock County is missing out on the promise of its riverfront, especially when it comes to entertainment, recreation and tourism. It needs more places like the Weirton Event Center, he said.

“To improve our quality of life here, we need more and varied experiences for our people,” he said. “The river is an asset that is underutilized.”

Nonetheless, Crow said Hancock County has “a lot to offer and a lot to be proud of.”

On the animal shelter, Crow said he has tried to talk to people on both sides of the issue and that he remains open to both sides.

“I’m reluctant to fault either side because they’re both trying to do what’s best,” he said. “I think both sides would have benefited from an open dialogue. … I think we should be able to sit down and discuss issues and take the personal attacks out of it.”

As for the smoking ban, Crow said exemptions should be part of the discussion. “I think there has to be a balance. When revenues are hit so drastically that it affects how the county operates, they should be able to come to an agreement on that,” he said.

Crow said the health board had the best of intentions when it passed the Clean Air Regulation but that it did not envision the economic consequences that resulted.

Crow and his wife of 39 years, Fran, have two grown children, Jack and Leah.