W.Va. leaders want permanent commerce head

By Steven Allen Adams

Special to the Times

WHITE SULPHER SPRINGS — At the 82nd West Virginia Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting and Business Summit, held at Gov. Jim Justice’s Greenbrier Resort every year, one would expect the leader of the state government’s economic arm – even the interim leader – to be in attendance.

But no one had seen Clayton Burch, the acting secretary of the West Virginia Department of Commerce. In fact, many of the attendees polled Thursday morning had never had a phone conversation with Burch, let alone had met the man.

Only Steve Roberts, the longtime president of the chamber, had met with Burch. The two had a meeting shortly after Burch was named the acting secretary for a department that had just seen two scandals and saw its senior leadership jump ship.

“I met with Clayton his first week on the job, and have been in contact with him since,” Roberts said. “In fact, I invited him to come to this meeting here. If he is here, I haven’t seen him.”

It’s not just business leaders who have had little interaction with the interim secretary. Legislative leaders whose committees deal with the divisions the Commerce Department oversees have also not spoken with Burch.

State Sen. Ed Gaunch, a Republican from Kanawha County and the chairman of the Senate Government Organization Committee, says he hasn’t heard from Burch.

“No sir, the truth is I haven’t met him,” Gaunch said. “I understand he is filling an interim role, but I’m hopeful we can get some permanent leadership in that department soon. I think it’s hurting us economic development-wise.”

Del. Gary Howell, a Republican from Mineral County and chair of the House Government Organization Committee, was also asked if he had spoken to Burch.

“I have not,” Howell said. “When (former Commerce Secretary Woody) Thrasher left I had several projects that were in the works and they all just came apart after that.”

CLAYTON BURCH: AN EDUCATION

W. Clayton Burch is no stranger to being an interim head of a department. He was appointed the acting secretary of the state Department of Education and the Arts after Gayle Manchin – former first lady and wife of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin – was fired by Justice in March.

Burch served in that role as the department transitioned into the Department of Arts, Culture and History after Justice signed legislation dismantling and reorganizing the department. Education has been a key part of Burch’s background.

On May 31, 2017, Burch was named associate superintendent of schools for the Department of Education. On the department’s organization chart updated in August, the only position higher than Burch’s is that of Steve Paine, the state superintendent of school.

Before that, Burch was head of the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning. He was in charge of early learning, secondary learning, special programs, and assessment and research. Some of his projects over 15 years included implementing universal pre-kindergarten, working on increasing reading achievements for third grade students, helping create the state’s college and career readiness standards, and increasing high school graduation rates.

The Department of Education is one of the largest state agencies. Being appointed to temporarily oversee an agency whose mission still included historical and cultural education with a smaller bureaucracy was likely an easy challenge for Burch. Jumping from the Department of Arts, Culture and History to the Department of Commerce, however, presented some new challenges.

FLOODED OUT

On June 14, Justice requested the resignation of Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher. The longtime businessman who six months earlier had been the toast of the state after orchestrating an $84 billion economic deal with Chinese officials was now being shown the door after a botched flood reconstruction effort.