CNG expected to make announcement Monday
by Troy Graham
Consolidated Natural Gas Co. is expected to hold a press conference Monday in Pittsburgh, at which time analysts and union officials expect a deal to be announced with Dominion Resources Inc. for either a merger or a sale.
One local official, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that an announcement was forthcoming but could not say what the content of the press conference would be. Internet postings on Yahoo's business page also said an announcement would be made Monday.
Bryan Ash, the vice president of the Allegheny Mountain Gas Workers' Union, which represents CNG employees, said the press conference was "pretty much common knowledge" among employees.
The union had grievance hearings with the company scheduled for Monday but canceled them in anticipation of the announcement, he said. However, company officials told union representatives that they "could neither confirm nor deny" talks of a deal, Ash said.
Spokesmen at the Richmond, Va.-based Dominion and at CNG's corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh did not return phone calls Saturday. Robert Fulton, a spokesman for CNG Transmission in Clarksburg, said any information would come from the Pittsburgh office. "We don't even know exactly what's going on," he said. Talk of a deal between the two companies sparked a surge in CNG's stock on Friday. The stock gained 3 3/4 points per share to close at 56 1/2.
CNG officials denied a sale of the company was in the works late last year while negotiating a contract with its union. The union, expecting a sale, wanted language inserted in its contract to preserve the union in case of a deal.
A Nov. 30 letter to the union from company officials said CNG was not actively pursuing a sale. "Right now we feel the company's been really dishonest," said Ash. "This didn't happen overnight if the rumors are true."
A week after a contract was ratified in December, the company announced a restructuring of its management that would result in the layoff of 5 percent of its employees. All five CNG subsidiaries, including Clarksburg-based Hope Gas and CNG Transmission Corp., were brought under one management team.
The restructuring was said to be necessary to streamline the company. CNG was not growing at a fast enough pace to meet or beat its competitors, said Senior Vice President Ron Adams.
Last year CNG reported income of $287 million, down from $318 million in 1997. Virginia Power, the main subsidiary of Dominion Resources, alone reported earnings of $395 million. But Virginia Power's earnings were also down.
Both Dominion and CNG blamed warm weather for lower earnings.
Dominion Resources also has natural gas operations, including Dominion Appalachian Development, based in Jane Lew. The company employs 50 people, said President Benjamin Hardesty. Hardesty said he knew nothing of a deal with CNG.
"What I know is what I read in the paper," he said. "I told people who have asked me to stay tuned."
Fears that CNG Transmission and Hope Gas, two of Clarksburg's largest employers, would move to Pittsburgh have been pervasive for years. After the management restructuring was announced, Adams tried to calm those fears by saying CNG was "alive and well" in Clarksburg.
If a deal is announced Monday, concern about CNG's future in Clarksburg, and the future of the 500 to 600 people who work at Hope and the transmission corporation, will likely resurface.
"The important thing to Clarksburg is there continues to be a presence in the city," said City Manager Percy Ashcraft. "To lose that would be a devastating blow to not only downtown but the region."
Interns discover politics can be addictive
CHARLESTON -Like a smoker reading the outside of
a pack of cigarettes, college students interning during the legislative
session can't say they weren't warned. "I tell them they're going to catch
an infectious disease," said Sue Tewksbury, the director of the Frasure-Singleton
Student Legislative Program. "It's not fatal, but it will stay with you
for the rest of your life."
Clarksburg cuts legal fees in half
by Paul Leakan
Clarksburg city officials sought to stem a tidal wave of legal fees by hiring an in-house city attorney in 1997. But the city attorney's unexpected resignation now leaves the city with a vacancy to fill and a big decision to make.
Officials must decide whether they should hire another in-house attorney or hire an entire law firm to handle the city's legal needs. The city administration is leaning toward hiring another full-time, in-house city attorney, said City Manager Percy Ashcraft.
City Attorney John Farmer, who turned in his resignation earlier this month for personal reasons, had done a good job in paring down legal fees, Ashcraft said. The city's legal fees had soared as high as $239,000 per year in the early 1990s.
But according to the city's finance department, legal fees were cut in half from fiscal years 1996-1997 to 1997-1998. Farmer began as city attorney Sept. 2, 1997.
"We've made great strides, not only in saving money, but I think with greater efficiency within the city because we have had an in-house attorney," Ashcraft said. "An in-house city attorney can serve a need greater than somebody who just writes ordinances and makes legal opinions. It's more than just a lawyer. It's really a department head." Even so, other area cities have found success without a full-time, in-house attorney. Weston and Buckhannon hire part-time attorneys to handle their legal needs. Elkins also does not have an in-house attorney, choosing to hire a local law firm full-time.
Elkins hires the law firm of Jory & Smith for a yearly retainer fee of $22,000. The retainer fee pays for the firm to attend and provide legal advice at all city meetings, represent the city in municipal court proceedings and draft ordinances.
Using a law firm to handle the city's legal issues has worked well in Elkins, said Mayor Jimmy Hammond. "We believe you almost can't use an individual. Some days you need an attorney. And if your attorney's on vacation, you're in trouble."
Phil Graziani, city clerk of Elkins, said another advantage of hiring a firm is that it can provide more expertise in different areas of the law than one city attorney. Elkins' retainer fee, however, does not include legal representation in magistrate court, circuit court or cases involving the Public Service Commission or any state advisory boards.
And that's exactly the type of cases that have hit Clarksburg in the wallet.
The Anchor Hocking glass plant and the fire service fee cases have cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. In the Anchor Hocking case, the city has been fighting having to pay back wages to plant workers for nearly a decade. In the fire service fee case, the city has been battling for more than a decade to force a city property owner to pay the fees.
In those cases, the city decided to go with outside legal assistance. The decision was made because the lawyers the city hired specialized in handling those types of disputes. The outside legal fees from those cases and several others have cost the city a total of $685,810 for the last four fiscal years.
But the choice to bring in outside counsel would likely be necessary regardless of whether the city hires a firm or an individual attorney, Ashcraft said. No single attorney has in-depth answers or experience in handling all types of litigation, and most law firms have become more specialized and practice less general law, he said.
Either way, the city charter gives the city manager the power to appoint another attorney. And Ashcraft said he will consider all the proposals the city receives for the position Ñ including those from a local law firm.
It wouldn't be a first if the city does choose a firm. Prior to Farmer's hiring, the firm of Robinson & McElwee handled the bulk of the city's legal cases.
"I'm not against entertaining proposals for a firm, depending upon what proposal they present," Ashcraft said. "We may find something that can work just as effectively. We'll just wait and see how the proposals come in and do the interview process after that."
Clarksburg Publishing Company, P.O. Box 2000, Clarksburg, WV 26302