CHARLESTON – After almost 90 minutes of questions and answers before the Kanawha County Commission on Feb. 2, Charleston attorney Ben Salango was chosen as former Commissioner Dave Hardy’s replacement until December 2018.
The selection makes him the youngest Kanawha County commissioner.
Nine candidates applied for the vacated seat created when Gov. Jim Justice tapped Hardy to be secretary of the state's Department of Revenue. The other candidates included Gregory Scott Childress, Mary Ann Claytor, Todd Goldman, Victor Grigoraci, Mark Halburn, Patricia Hamilton, Gary Pullin, Leslie Smith and Marc Slotnick.
Salango, 43, is married to Tera Salango, a former Kanawha County assistant prosecutor and now fellow attorney at the firm Preston & Salango PLLC, in which Ben Salango is co-founder, part owner and partner. The couple has two children, T.J., 14, and Caden, 9.
Salango graduated from West Virginia University and West Virginia University College of Law. Specializing in personal injury cases and medical malpractice, he has received numerous citations and awards for his often pro bono work for his clients.
“When I first became interested in the county commission, it was last year. I had approached the commission for a project I was working for youth sports and saving the soccer fields out at Trace Fork,” Salango told The West Virginia Record. “The commission was able to help out and I really became interested in what they do because I think they can do much more than just balancing budgets. They can really have a positive influence.”
Following Hardy's departure, Salango decided to apply for the position against a field of candidates he said were very qualified. He believes his nomination is due in part to a nationwide trend in voters seeking non-politicians for office.
Asked what he intended to accomplish as commissioner, Salango said he was hoping, among other things, to promote youth activities and sports tourism for Kanawha County, which he said was conveniently located between Charlotte, Columbus, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Youth activities have long been a passion of Salango.
“I truly think that I stayed out of trouble not only because I had great and active parents, very involved parents, but I had youth sports and youth activities," he said. "I did [sports] all through high school and even did some wrestling in college. The friends that I formed back then are still my buddies today.”
Salango’s appointment has had one effect on his firm so far.
“[Preston & Salango PLLC] has one lawyer that has, I think, three criminal cases and he’s going to have to withdraw because, as county commissioner, [the Commission and I] set the budget for the county prosecutor’s office and the sheriff’s department. That would be a conflict of interest,” he said.
The new commissioner said that the lawyer submitted his withdraw from the cases on Feb. 3.
During the interview before the Commission, Commissioner Hoppy Shores appeared to be highly interested in how the candidates viewed the use of "home rule" by the county.
This law came about in 2007, when the West Virginia Legislature passed Senate Bill 747, which enacted the Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program. The program was designed to permit four pilot cities a greater say in what state laws impacted them and to what degree, as long as the changes did not violate the U.S. Constitution, the state constitution, federal law, the Uniform Controlled Substance Act, the Crimes and Their Punishment Act, and the Criminal Procedure Act of the West Virginia Code.
Reviewed by the state as a success in 2012, the act was expanded in 2014 to include 14 other pilot cities. The concept has not been without its’ critics.
Shores has long been an opponent of the program, which he says has been a Trojan horse for increased city and county taxes. Shores found a sympathetic and educated ear in Salango.
“I think that the home rule, particularly at the county level, is an opportunity to raise taxes and that’s why I’m against it,” Salango told The West Virginia Record.
“Look, I don’t want to be taxed anymore,” he continued. “I’m a small business owner. I don’t want to pay any more taxes. I think we need to use our money more efficiently. If there is a way to cut spending as opposed to raising taxes to increase revenue, I prefer to do that.”
The West Virginia Record talked with Salango about several other important issues facing Kanawha; the recovery from last June’s widespread flooding and the opioid crisis gripping the county. Salango stated that if he found the commission could do more, say on obtaining more money for flood relief and offering greater assistance to law enforcement in taking the lead against controlled substances, he would advocate for that.