Category Archives: Legislature

Lucas gives McMaster’s roads letter the answer it deserves

Henry McMaster continues to disappoint those of us who had hoped for some leadership for a change over at the governor’s office.

At least, we kept telling ourselves, he hadn’t threatened to veto the bill increasing the gas tax and reforming DOT, the way Nikki Haley would have done.

Well, today he crossed that line.

Then he exacerbated it by coming up with a cockamamie alternative for paying for road repairs:

Promising to veto an increase to the state’s gas tax to repair the state’s roads, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster wants lawmakers instead to borrow up to $1 billion to fix South Carolina’s crumbling roads.

McMaster, governor since January, urged lawmakers to change a proposed $500 million borrowing plan, proposed by the House, to instead spend that money — and more — on roads. McMaster made his proposal in a letter Tuesday to House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington….

The speaker gave the proposal the contempt it deserved. Translated from genteel Lucasspeak, he not only said “No,” but “Hell, no:”

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Governor McMaster’s proposal continues the pattern of placing the costs of road repair solely on the South Carolina taxpayer and not on out-of-state motorists who use and deteriorate our crumbling roads. Borrowing more money to fix South Carolina’s roads and bridges will not serve as a permanent solution to our infrastructure crisis. The House passed our roads bill with an overwhelming bipartisan and veto proof majority, which protects the South Carolina taxpayer by providing a sustainable funding stream that requires every motorist to pay their fair share.

Not only is Henry throwing behind the runner — he’s throwing to first when the House has long ago crossed home plate — but the proposal would have been ridiculous even if it were still an open question in that body.

We have a mechanism for the ongoing funding of roads — the gas tax. You want to fix roads and you don’t have enough money, you raise the gas tax. It’s not complicated, and there is no call for trying to reinvent the wheel as a way of avoiding the obvious, commonsense solution….

What’s Henry McMaster afraid of? Mark Sanford?

McMaster for governor

Several weeks back, I was on an elevator with a Republican attorney who asked me what I though about how Henry McMaster was doing as governor.

As I was mentally crafting a reply — something like I have hopes, and I see the gasoline tax issue as one that will help determine whether the hopes are justified — he followed up his own question with speculation about Mark Sanford running against Henry in 2018, and wondering whether any other Republicans will run as well.

I don’t know what I said to that. After Donald Trump handed Henry the job he’d wanted so long, I had sort of stopped pondering 2018, thinking Well, that’s that. I certainly hadn’t given any thought to Mark Sanford having ambitions of running again for the office for which he is so spectacularly unsuited, as he spent eight years demonstrating. I probably just made some noises like homina-homina, as though the speech center of my brain had been struck by lightning.

I had not spent time worrying about that the same way I don’t wake up in the morning worrying about an invasion of Nazi zombies. (Of course, when the Nazi zombies do take over, you realize that you should have worried.)

Anyway, once the brain started running again, I started thinking: Is this why Henry’s running from the chance to lead on the gas tax? Is it all about fearing a challenge from Mr. Club for Growth? (And yeah, Sanford had been on a number of people’s 2018 speculation lists — I just hadn’t been paying attention to that stuff.)

Let’s set aside the absurdity of Sanford leaving his comfort zone to once again occupy the governor’s chair. Being a member of the “no” caucus in Congress suits Sanford’s style perfectly. His political M.O. is: Toss out proposals and watch them get shot down, and then moan about it. That seems to be what he runs to do. That makes him perfectly suited to be a member of the Freedom Caucus. Nobody expect them to accomplish anything. Do that as governor, and you just make the legislative leadership of your own party want to throttle you. They count the days until you’re gone, hoping you’ll be replaced by someone who wants to govern.

Which is what, after 14 years of Sanford and Nikki Haley, lawmakers had every reason to expect. And they did. They were even described as “giddy” about the prospect:

“He’s pragmatic,” said state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester. “He gets people together to reach compromises. He doesn’t dig into one position, and you’re either with him or you’re not.”

Publicly, S.C. lawmakers offer mostly guarded assessments of Haley and their optimism about McMaster, who will ascend to the governor’s office once Haley is confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in a few weeks.

Privately, however, some are giddy to trade in Haley – a 44-year-old Republican who bashed lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Legislature on Facebook and in their hometowns, offered failing “grades” to those who disagreed with her and told a real estate group to “take a good shower” after visiting the State House – for McMaster, a GOP governor they think will work with them….

Meanwhile, we saw the GOP leadership in the House stepping out and leading on fixing our roads — unabashedly raising the gas tax, and reforming governance of the agency.

And then, rather than joining them in the vanguard, Henry started muttering about what a bad idea raising the tax was (as though there were some rational alternative way of paying for roads, which there isn’t), making ominous “last resort” noises. As though we hadn’t gotten to the “last resort” stage some time ago.

No, he hasn’t promised to veto such an increase — which would have been his predecessor’s opening move — but he just won’t stop sending out bad vibes about it. (“Always with the negative waves, Moriarty!”)

It’s bad enough that the proposal has to run the Senate gauntlet, with Tom Davis shooting at it from one side and the “tax increase yes; reform no” crowd on the other. When a thing needs doing, the Senate is at its best dysfunctional. It would have been really, really nice to have the governor standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Speaker Lucas in trying to solve this problem, instead of standing by and watching it get kicked farther down the pothole-pocked road.

Taxes are a killer?” Really? No, governor — unsafe roads are a killer, if anything is on this front.

Of course, if one is inclined to pessimism, one might think the window for leadership has closed or soon will, now that a dark cloud has parked itself over anyone and everyone associated with Richard Quinn. I certainly hope that’s not the case, because we have issues in South Carolina that need to be addressed.

I also hope the governor won’t hold back out of fear of 2018, because at some point, you really need to stop running for office and govern

I can’t bring myself to believe the charges against Courson

I’ve had a day and more to think about the news regarding John Courson, and it remains tough for me to come up with much to say about it, beyond this:

I can’t believe these charges.

I know Courson as a longtime source. We’re not close buddies or anything. I haven’t been on baseball road trips with him like Greg Gregory. All I can attest to is the impression I’ve formed dealing with him professionally over the course of decades.courson

And that impression is: John Courson is a gentleman, one who deeply values honor. Not only that, but he is a man to whom being a gentleman, in an old-school sense, is extremely important. He’d no more throw it away than he would tear down that Marine Corps banner he flies in front of his house and trample on it. He certainly wouldn’t do it in an underhanded scheme to obtain filthy lucre.

That’s just something I’m not able to imagine.

So there has to be some other explanation.

I just don’t know what that would be.

It seems unlikely that prosecutor David Pascoe would have stepped out on this without having what he believes to be solid evidence. After all this time, and all this expectation that’s been built up, and all the controversy infused with the ugly taint of partisanship, he’d be crazy to go after Courson unless he was sure he had him.

Even if you accept the notion — which I don’t — that this is all partisan politics, a desperate attempt by a Democrat to weaken the supremely dominant Republicans, Pascoe would be nuts to make a play like this without an ace in his hand. (And if it were a matter of a Democrat going after Republicans, why target Courson, who enjoys so much Democratic support?)

What might that ace be? One assumes he has, or would want to have, documents showing a money trail. And if that’s what he has, what explanation will Courson have to counter that?

In any case, I’m just not able to believe he’s guilty.

Yeah, it’s true: One can be fooled about someone. I’ll never forget my uncle’s reaction to Lost Trust. When the feds charged John I. Rogers, my uncle said no way. They’ve got the wrong man. No one in Bennettsville could believe that Rogers would do anything underhanded. If it had been the local senator, Jack Lindsey, no one would have raised an eyebrow. But John I. Rogers? No.

And then Rogers pleaded guilty.

But I don’t see that happening here.

We’ll see.

You know what’s ‘not what elected office should look like?’ Coronor, that’s what

Probably the dumbest headline I’ve seen this week was this one: “House panel moves to scrap education, experience requirements for coroners.”

Riiihhhgt… because that’s just what we need in the official who investigates unattended deaths in our counties — less expertise.

And the body of the story didn’t make a better impression than the headline:

Todd Rutherford

Todd Rutherford

An S.C. House panel Wednesday unanimously OK’d a proposal to scrap state laws requiring that county coroners meet education and experience standards.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, says his bill strips “onerous” state laws that ensure only a handful of people in each county can run for the position.

“That’s not what elected office should look like,” Rutherford said, adding more qualifications are required of county coroners than U.S. presidents….

Let’s set aside the fact that this moment, when we’ve just elected the most outrageously unfit president in history, is not the best moment to tout the presidency’s lack of prerequisites… and move on to my point.

Which is this: The office of coroner is itself precisely “not what elected office should look like.” Coroner, a strictly technical, magisterial position that has nothing to do with politics, is precisely the kind of office that it is idiotic to fill by popular election.

If you want the job done right, you have the county administrator interview qualified candidates, and hire the person with the best experience and credentials.

You want to amend the law in a way that makes sense? Don’t dumb down the office in some misguided nod to democracy. Go the other way. Start by taking “coroner” off the ballot.

Thank for the leadership, Speaker Lucas

If seems that Grover Norquist no longer runs the South Carolina House of Representatives.

Jay Lucas does. And he’s doing a good job. Along with Rep. Gary Simrill and everybody who voted for his bill yesterday.

It shouldn’t be remarkable that the House just voted to increase the state gasoline tax by (eventually) 10 cents a gallon. After all, everything about the situation would tend to lead any reasonable person to take that action:

  • We need road repairs.
  • We lack money for road repairs.
  • We have a tax that is dedicated to paying for road needs.
  • That tax is among the lowest in the country.
  • It hadn’t been raised for 30 years.

But as we know, our Legislature hasn’t been inclined to make calm, objective decisions with regard to taxes since the GOP took over in 1995. Since then, taxes have been for cutting, no matter the situation — because ideology rather than real-life conditions have ruled. And that approach, as the Speaker says, “simply places politics above responsible public policy.”

Speaker Jay Lucas

Speaker Jay Lucas

Of course, you don’t have to be an anti-government ideologue to have reservations about a tax increase. And in this instance, it would have been wrong to give DOT more money without reforming the governance of the agency. But this bill takes care of that, too.

Is this a done deal? Nope, because it still has to get through the Senate, which unlike the House isn’t run by anybody. As a body, it has been as allergic to DOT reform as the House used to be to tax increases. And that’s not the whole story. There’s also Sen. Tom Davis, whom The State today described as “libertarian-leaning,” which made me smile. Tom leans toward libertarianism the way Donald Trump leans toward self-aggrandizement.

But I want to praise Speaker Lucas and the House for getting us this far.

Folks, let’s pay for our roads ourselves, OK?

SC House

Good for these House members:

A plan to raise S.C. gas taxes by roughly $60 a year was approved Tuesday by a panel of S.C. House members.

The bill will be considered by the full S.C. House budget-writing panel on Thursday.

The proposal is an effort to address the the $1 billion a year the Transportation Department has said it needs to repair and maintain the state’s existing road network….

And good for Speaker Jay Lucas and the other leaders who’ve gotten behind a bill to do the obvious: raise the gas tax to improve our roads.

I haven’t written about this courageous and rational move because I hadn’t fully made up my mind what to say about it. It’s basically a laudable, long-overdue proposal that is nevertheless seriously flawed.

The reasons why it’s laudable and long-overdue are obvious to all but those rendered blind by ideology:

  • This tax is our state’s mechanism for paying for roads.
  • We need road repairs, and don’t have enough money.
  • Our gas tax is one of the lowest in the country.
  • It hasn’t been raised since 1987.

So, you know, duh — raise it. Especially since we no longer have a governor who absurdly (and we’re talking Alice in Wonderland absurdity) threatened to veto a gas tax increase that wasn’t accompanied by a much larger decrease in other taxes, thereby more than erasing any benefit from raising the gas tax.

But here’s the rub: It’s not paired with reform of the state Department of Transportation. And it needs to be. That agency needs to be more accountable before we give it more money.

Unfortunately, after last year’s non-reform of the agency, the most recent in a long line of non-reforms our General Assembly has handed us, there’s little appetite or energy for trying again this year, knowing the same obstacles exist. As Cindi wrote today, “the reality is that if our best advocate, House Speaker Jay Lucas, isn’t pushing reform, we’re not going to get reform.”

So that’s that. (Oh, and if you decry the power Hugh Leatherman regained upon his re-election as president pro tem of the Senate, this is an issue where you have a point — he’s a big obstacle to reform.)

Bottom line, we need to raise the tax, and we need reform. I haven’t yet fully decided what I would do were I a lawmaker. But I do admire the courage of those who finally broke the ridiculous taboo in that committee vote today — while I hope against hope for some reform to get attached to it later in the process.

But while I’m torn on that, I’m not on this: I’m not in favor of “solving” the problem by asking our new governor’s buddy Donald Trump to just give us $5 billion for infrastructure.

To begin with, it’s not a solution. Since $4 billion of that would go to roads, that kicks the problem down the road four years, no more. Which, conveniently, would be after the date that Henry McMaster hopes to be elected to stay as governor.

Given what we’ve seen from this Legislature over the last two decades and more, it is highly unlikely that it will be in the mood to raise the gas tax or any other tax four years from now. The fact that the House leadership is ready to do so now is something of a miracle — possibly resulting from giddiness over the departure of Nikki Haley — and unlikely to be duplicated.

Then there’s the fact that the federal government exists to fund and address national needs and priorities. There is no proposal currently on the table (that I know of) that would provide this level of funding nationally, so why should South Carolina — a state that with its super-low gas tax has refused even to try to pay for its own roads — be singled out for such largess? And no, “Because the president owes our governor big-time” is not an ethical answer. It probably makes sense in the deal-oriented private world Donald Trump has always inhabited, but to say the very least, it’s not good government.

My position on this is much the same as my reasoning against the state lottery way back when — public education is a basic function of the state, and if we want good schools, we should do what responsible grownups do: dig into our pockets and pay for them, not try to trick someone else into paying for them.

Similarly, if we want safe and reliable roads, we shouldn’t rely on some deus ex machina — or worse, cronyism — to deliver us from the responsibility of paying for them.

I see now that Henry is saying raising the gas tax should be the “last resort.” No, governor, trying to pay for our own needs ourselves should be our first resort. At least, it should come well before taking the begging cup to Washington. Besides, we’ve avoided doing this for 30 years now. How long do you go before it’s time for the “last resort?”

 

Did y’all watch Nikki’s State of the State? Thoughts?

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File photo from the governor’s Facebook page.

CAVEAT: When I wrote this post I had missed something important in the governor’s speech, something that had come during the part I missed. It has bearing on the points I make in the post, and here it is.

I had a Community Relations Council meeting last night, so I only heard the very last part of Nikki Haley’s last State of the State on the radio driving home.

It sounded fine, as fond farewells go. I was a little disappointed by one thing. I heard her talking in a roundabout, indirect way about getting the Confederate flag down:

But above all, I will remember how the good people of South Carolina responded to those tragedies, with love and generosity and compassion, and what that has meant for our state.

I spoke earlier of my dear desire to see the image of South Carolina changed for the better. Standing here tonight, I can say with every confidence that it has happened, that that desire has been fulfilled.

But not because of me. The people of South Carolina accomplished the highest aspiration I had for our state all on their own.

They did it by showing the entire world what love and acceptance looks like. They did it by displaying for all to see the power of faith, of kindness, and of forgiveness. They did it by stepping up to every challenge, through every tragedy, every time.

But I wish she’d spoken about it more directly. When I got a copy of her speech later, I found that it only contained the word “flag” once, and that was in reference to the Clemson flag she and her daughter had hoisted over the State House earlier this week. (NOTE: This counts officially as a sports reference, and fulfills the weekly quota! So if y’all want to talk about that football game the other night, here’s a place for you to do it.)

Which disappointed me. Why? Because I think getting that other flag down was her defining moment, the one when she became the leader of South Carolina, and led us to where our lawmakers had refused for too long to go.

Did you see Obama’s farewell speech the other night? He mentioned getting bin Laden, didn’t he? Of course he did. That’s when he made his bones as commander-in-chief. Well, the flag was when Nikki made hers, only as leader of a mature, rational state where people may not forget, but they forgive, and care about each other.

Yeah, I get that she wanted her speech to be sweetness and light, and didn’t want to say anything that stirred ill feeling — and there are those who resent taking down the flag, although they’ve mostly been fairly quiet. And it seems safe to assume there’s a bit of a correlation between those folks and the set that voted for her soon-to-be boss.

But that was her proudest moment. I think it’s easy for people to downplay her role, but I’m telling you, I’ve known too many governors who didn’t want to touch that flag, or even talk about it. And I’ve known others who started to do something, but backed away, or accepted a “compromise” that settled nothing — because they saw that as the best they could get out of our Legislature. And maybe they were right, at the time.

But the thing that Nikki did was recognize the moment when it came, and seize it without hesitation. (That’s a huge part of leadership — recognizing when people are ready to be led. One of the secrets of Lincoln’s extraordinary achievements was his uncanny ability to see exactly when he could lead the country to do things it had always refused to do before.)

It was a moment in which the whole state was in shock and morning. And there were those who protested that this wasn’t the time to act, before the dead had even been buried. But sometimes that exactly when one must act, because later would be much too late.

When she stood up and said, essentially, Let’s not let this summer pass without getting that flag down for good — no fooling around, no compromises, that made all the difference. It made what had been impossible possible, and made it happen.

So if she’d wanted to speak to that directly, I’d have applauded. Because I’m proud of her for that.

She didn’t have to brag or anything. She could have stuck to her theme of “I didn’t do it; y’all did.” And that’s true, in the sense that our state was ready to be led there. But without someone strenuously pushing it through the Legislature, it wouldn’t have happened.

I’ll close with that video my son did after the first anti-flag rally after the shootings, the one I did the voiceover on. It testifies to a mood sweeping through our state. But I still said, it took what Nikki did to translate that into action…

Let’s clarify the Gov Lite succession, but I wouldn’t blame Leatherman for trying to dodge it

Tom Davis

Tom Davis

I’ve been getting Tom Davis‘ highly involved emails about the uncertainty surrounding what will happen with the lieutenant governor position if Henry McMaster becomes governor, but I confess I found them a bit dense and confusing, and didn’t read them all the way through.

So I didn’t fully focus on what he was on about until today, when Cindi Scoppe wrote about the issue, and ran excerpts from Tom’s recent speech on the matter.

Really, really simplifying it, Tom has two issues:

  1. He wants the Supreme Court to clarify a mess created by the General Assembly. Voters wisely decided several years back that we would, starting in 2018, elect the governor and lieutenant governor together. In the past, if there’s a vacancy in the lt. gov. position between elections, the president pro tem of the Senate becomes Gov Lite. After 2018, if there’s a sudden vacancy, the governor will be empowered to appoint a new lt. Unfortunately, the language lawmakers passed to go into the state constitution after the vote failed to specify that the governor wouldn’t have that appointive power until 2018, leaving it open to the interpretation that the governor has that power now.
  2. He wants Hugh Leatherman, who as Senate president pro tem is arguably the most powerful person in state government, to take the gov lite job, which is worth even less than the bucket of warm spit at which vice presidency is valued. Leatherman, quite understandably, isn’t even slightly interested in giving up the Senate post he’s spent his political career rising to.

I’m with Sen. Davis on the first point — the succession needs to be cleared up. Trying to follow what the law exactly is at this moment sort of makes my head hurt.

Leatherman

Leatherman

I’m not with him on the second. If the succession is done the old way, and Leatherman resigns temporarily from the pro tem position so someone else can have it long enough to become lieutenant governor, and he can then summon the votes to become pro tem again, well, more power to him. (Too much power, Sen. Shane Massey would say, but I say it’s up to the senators to decide whether they want their Finance chairman to be pro tem.)

Yeah, if the Court says it still works that way, the pro tem must become gov lite. But that doesn’t specify which pro tem. As we saw just a couple of years back, even if one just became pro tem five minutes ago, you’re the one who becomes lt. gov.

That time around, John Courson didn’t have the votes to quit for a few minutes and be re-elected. From what I hear, Leatherman does.

Yes, technically — if the Court rules that way — being pro tem entails becoming lt. gov. if there’s a vacancy. And Tom Davis seems to believe — as did Glenn McConnell — that this is some sort of sacred covenant that is somehow central to being pro tem. That seems a bit … off to me. I honor McConnell for following his conscience on that, but I’m just not entirely sure that he had the deep, moral obligation that he thought he did.

The voters of Florence County elected Leatherman to be their senator, not to be the lieutenant governor. His Senate colleagues chose him to be their leader, not to be lieutenant governor.

That the job of pro tem contains this condition of suddenly being demoted from the sublime heights to the lower depths of state officialdom, due to circumstances beyond one’s control, seems like a goofy, arbitrary penalty in a particularly capricious game. It’s like landing on Community Chest in Monopoly and getting a card that sends you straight to jail. It’s like an American-Ninja-style reality TV show in which, due to no failing on your part, a trap door suddenly opens under you and you fall into a vat of ice water. It does NOT seem like a provision drafted because it’s a sensible way to run a government. (I think succession laws make eminent sense — when it’s a matter of a promotion, like vice president to president. But this sudden penalty provision seems goofy.)

To respond to something Cindi suggested in her column: It would not be at all OK if the law were found to require the pro tem to become gov lite and Leatherman simply said, “I refuse.” That would be inexcusable, and then we’d have a real crisis on our hands. But if he’s willing to step down and run for the office again after some other poor soul becomes lieutenant governor, I say let him take his chances.

As one of his fellow senators, Tom Davis will then have not only the right, but the duty (since that’s what his conscience dictates) to vote against him, and try to persuade his colleagues to do likewise.

I don’t think this is an open-and-shut thing, and I can think of good reasons to take Tom’s position. But he doesn’t quite persuade me. Maybe some of you can….

Haley fires the whole Rec board

Read this so early today, I forgot to mention it before…

How about Nikki Haley taking decisive action on the Richland County Recreation Board?

Gov. Nikki Haley is moving to fire all seven members of the Richland County Recreation Board.

The rare action by Haley comes after months of lawsuits alleging sexual harassment by recreation director James Brown III, who retired last month after he was indicted for misconduct in office.

It also follows allegations by a bipartisan majority of the 17-member Richland County Legislative Delegation that members of the appointed recreation board that oversaw Brown had grossly mismanaged the recreation commission’s affairs for years.

Lawmakers said board members allowed unwarranted pay raises and widespread nepotism and thus had neglected their duties.

In a 10-page executive order announced Thursday afternoon by the governor’s office, Haley affirmed the charges brought by the delegation majority and named the seven board members she seeks to remove.

They are: chairman J. Marie Green, vice-chair Barbara Mickens, Weston Furgess Jr., George D. Martin Jr., Joseph Weeks, Thomas Clark and Wilbert Lewis….

This is a bit more than lawmakers had asked for — they had just wanted to ditch the four who had most enabled Brown.

But they weren’t complaining. Sen. Joel Lourie sent me this last night:

In response to the Executive Order issued by Governor Haley today, members of the delegation issued the following statements:

Senator Joel Lourie:

“We thank the Governor and her staff for their diligence in pursuit of all the facts dealing with this complicated matter.  This has always been about what is fair and right for the employees of the Recreation Commission and about providing quality, fiscally responsible services to the citizens of Richland County.”

Representative Beth Bernstein:

“I want to personally thank the Governor and her office for hearing our concerns and taking this unprecedented, but warranted, initiative on behalf of the citizens of Richland County.  This Board will now be held accountable  and the voices of the aggrieved employees of RCRC have been heard.”

Representative James Smith:

“This is a critical next step to restore public confidence in the Recreation Commission.”

Of course, those are members of the pro-reform majority of the delegation.

One of the defenders of the status quo said this:

“This is an absolute overreach,” said Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, who said Haley should leave the board members alone. “They didn’t do anything illegal or unethical.”

The Senate District 22 debate went OK — by which I mean, better than the presidential ones

both

My only complaint was that more people weren’t there. There were about 60 in the audience, which isn’t terrible, but in the vast Richland Northeast auditorium, that looked pretty sparse.

The candidates, Democrat Mia McLeod and Republican Susan Brill, were both quite civil and well-behaved, but not shrinking violets. They asserted themselves. More than once, after they both had answered the question and both had rebutted, they asked for more time, so I gave them another round of rebuttal. I think rules should be flexible, as long as order is maintained. I’ll not have any debate I moderate turn into the ugly spectacles we see between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — if I can help it. Harrumph.

Of course, you can’t always help it, and visions of this debate devolving into a scene from Lord of the Flies caused me to be more nervous yesterday than I think I’ve ever been before moderating a debate. I’ve just seen so much chaos on TV this year, I wondered whether it had set an uncivilized precedent. I could hear the nervousness in my own voice at the outset of the forum, but once we were engaged and we’d interacted a bit, I calmed down. (It was kind of like my wrestling days in high school. I always hated, hated, HATED the circling around at the start of a bout — it made me super apprehensive, not knowing what was going to happen. But once my opponent and I had a grip on each other, I settled down and knew what to do.)

Interestingly, I actually had to stop Susan Brill a couple of times when she interjected during Rep. McLeod’s time, telling her to wait her turn. That made me feel pretty foolish, since I had earlier asked her whether she was assertive enough to be effective in the Senate. (This was a companion question to asking Mia whether her abrasive communication style would work in the collegial Senate. I saw them as sort of opposites on the assertiveness scale — Mia too hot, Susan too cold.)

Only once did the audience get out of hand. Ms. McLeod was speaking when suddenly a man’s voice boomed from the audience something along the lines of Wait, are you trying to say… Everyone turned to stare in that direction — I couldn’t see him for the stage lights. I cut in immediately with something like, No, sir! We are not going to do that… I said he should write his question on a 3X5 card like everybody else, and pass it to Community Relations Council Executive Director Henri Baskins. To his credit, he complied. (As I said that, I knew I probably wouldn’t get to his question, because I had plenty of good questions — many more than I had time for — in front of me already, and I thought polite people’s questions should have precedence. But as it happened, Henri passed his question to me and, deciding I may have implied that I would ask his question, I made it the last one in the program.)

Were there any serious gaffes? Not really, although Ms. Brill got a pretty snarky reaction to her assertion — in trying to prove that the Richland Two school board of which she is a member provides all the district’s schools what they need, without favoritism — that the board had provided Ms. McCleod’s children’s high school with… wait for it… Astroturf for their football field.

At this point, y’all are saying, “Where’s the substance? You’re talking about the style.” Well, that’s the thing: When I’m moderating, I find it impossible to take notes. I’m too busy with the forms — making sure the rules are followed, watching the timekeeper, trying to keep up with what the candidates are saying even as I sort through the 3X5 cards from the audience trying to pick the next question.

But here are my prepared questions — I got to all but one — and a very brief summary of what I remember them saying in response. Sorry I can’t do better:

  1. I think most voters in the district are sorry to see Sen. Joel Lourie ending his distinguished career in the state Senate. He has played a leadership role on a number of issues of statewide importance. I’d like to ask each of you, to what extent to you intend to follow through on Sen. Lourie’s initiatives, and what sorts of issues are you likely to stress that he has not? Both said they would follow through on his issues. Mia mentioned DSS reform in particular. She also said one issue she would work on that she didn’t think Joel had done enough on was gender pay equity.
  2. We’ve had the opportunity to observe both candidates in public office for a number of years. I’d like to ask a question of each of you regarding your personal leadership styles. Ms. McLeod, you have been a very active and energetic advocate on a number of controversial local issues. You sometimes have a forceful, assertive style. Your critics say it’s too forceful, and unnecessarily alienates people. Your supporters say you’re a breath of fresh air, and exactly what’s needed. You’re running to be a part of the state Senate, a body that prides itself on its collegiality. My question is, how effective do you think your approach will be in that body? She had said in opening remarks that she was “a fighter,” so I reworded this to reflect that. She maintained that she had nothing to apologize for, and cited her ability, for instance, to work across the aisle with Republicans.
  3. Ms. Brill, I have almost the opposite question to ask of you. In many ways your leadership style seems the opposite of your opponent’s. We seldom see you stepping out and making headlines in the same forceful way that Ms. McLeod does. Some might see your approach as more passive. Our state, and Richland County, have a number of very contentious, controversial issues lying before them. My question of you is, are you assertive enough to lead on these issues in an effective manner? She argued that she was, too, a leader, although it seems in retrospect (my memory could be playing tricks) that she had to go back to her time on county council years ago to come up with good examples.
  4. As I said, you are both experienced officeholders. Ms. Brill has gained a perspective on education and on local government that many members of our state Senate may lack. And Ms. McLeod well knows that the House can see things very differently from the way senators do. I’d like to ask each of you, what will you take from your specific experience in office that will make you a better senator? Sorry. I know they both had fairly substantive answers to this, but I honestly can’t recall the specifics
  5. Let’s talk about the Richland County Recreation Commission. After a year of upheaval in which many residents of the county began to despair of seeing the matter addressed meaningfully, we have recently seen movement, in part because of stands taken by the legislative delegation. But what has happened falls far short of what lawmakers have demanded. What should happen next, and what would you do as a senator to make it happen? I didn’t feel like either fully answered this, which may be because I wasn’t specific enough about what I meant. Mia sort of leaped ahead to answer Question 7, saying she would change state law to make lawmakers able to remove commissioners. She also noted that she thought the governor had all the information she needed to act. I think Susan also spoke of broader remedies. I considered asking the question again, demanding to know what they think should happen with the problem commissioners who haven’t quit, but I had a lot of subjects I wanted to get to, and moved on.
  6. Here’s a question near and dear to the CRC and its mission: The Recreation Commission issue is like many in Richland County, including on the Richland Two school board. It often breaks along racial lines. Things can get pretty ugly. Even Sen. Lourie, after all his years – and those of his father before him – of leading on social justice issues, has had the race card flung at him. How can we move forward on these difficult issues, which are tough enough without the painful ingredient of racial tension? How would you further communication to achieve the understanding needed to get everyone working together? Mia got slightly defensive on this, and defended herself well by going back to her leadership on the Election Commission debacle, when hers was the loudest voice calling for reform, and saying failing to run an election competently has nothing at all to do with race. (At some point in the debate — I don’t recall if it was now or later — there was some back-and-forth about Mia having injected herself into the incident at Spring Valley last year, something Brill supporters have decried as inappropriate.
  7. One more related to the Recreation Commission. The central political problem it poses is that while the legislative delegation can appoint its members, lawmakers can’t remove them, even if the delegation can itself come to agreement on something so difficult. This, along with hundreds of Special Purpose Districts across our state, is a vestige of the Legislative State, of a time when state legislators ran everything on the local level in their communities. The SPDs just did not go away when the Home Rule Act was passed in the 70s. What should be done about these hundreds of unaccountable little governments called special purpose districts, and will you lead on addressing the situation if elected? Neither seemed as interested in taking this on as I would be, although Susan may have been more willing than Mia — I really can’t recall now. I just remember being disappointed, and moving on.
  8. Let’s talk about infrastructure. Even before the floods of a year ago, our state was struggling to figure out how to maintain its vast network of roads, and failing to agree. Then came the floods, with all those dams failing right here in this district. The damage to dams, roads, bridges and such landmarks as the Columbia Canal was tremendous, and we had not nearly recovered from all that damage when Hurricane Matthew came along and did further harm. What should South Carolina do to address its infrastructure challenge, for the safety and economic development of our state? Both decried the situation, but neither really offered a long-term solution for paying for infrastructure. At some point — but I think it was later — Mia mentioned raising the gas tax, and if I remember correctly, Susan did not disagree. (Anyone who was there, please jump in and correct my memory if I get it wrong.)
  9. Let’s switch to taxes. Speaker Lucas has a committee looking at our tax system, so some pretty big potential changes COULD be before the General Assembly soon. I want to ask about the LAST big change lawmakers made to state law, 10 years ago. I refer to Act 388, which removed the burden for supporting public school operations from homeowners and placed it on a combination of business property and an increased sales tax. This has had a number of unintended consequences, such as stifling business, and people who can’t afford to own their homes paying higher rents, and schools and local governments not being able to raise the money they need to operate. Should ACT 388 be maintained as it is, repealed or amended? And if amended, how? Mia said repeal. I think Susan’s answer was more nuanced, but I don’t remember the details.
  10. South Carolina has a vast army of state retirees, including, I would expect, some in this very room. How would you address the unfunded liability of state retirement systems? I remember nothing at all about their responses.
  11. Here’s something that over the years at the newspaper I ALWAYS asked candidates about. We have before us, as usual, a Democrat and a Republican. I want to ask each of you, how important is party to you? To what extent will you follow the party line, and to what extent will you go your own way? I skipped this question, as after asking some audience questions, I was running out of time.
  12. South Carolina opted not to expand Medicaid when the Affordable Care Act was implemented. Was that the right course? What should our state do about healthcare going forward? Sorry. I forget the details. Dang.

OK, that was a pretty pointless exercise. I just don’t remember enough — and worse, I tend to remember Mia’s answers better than Susan’s. Not that Susan’s were bad; at the time I felt like she was addressing the questions well enough. I just can’t remember them as well.

Dang. Well, y’all should have been there.

Oh, wait — people want to know about zingers. I remember one in particular aimed by Mia at Susan. And it may have been the one thing Mia said that illustrated the unnecessary abrasiveness that her critics cite. One of the audience questions was about Mia’s $49,500 contract with the city of Columbia for communications consulting. That’s the subject of an attack ad from the Senate Republican Caucus, and a sore point for the Democrat (and it wasn’t among my questions because I knew it would come up).

She used it as an occasion to lash out at her opponent as a woman who had never worked outside the home, and didn’t understand people who had to go out and earn a living. She also hit her for failing to distance herself from Donald Trump — something I was about to ask about (another audience question).

Ms. Brill responded accurately that she had nothing to do with the attack ad; that was the caucus. I found her answer about Trump less satisfactory, but let’s be fair: I’m never satisfied with anyone who won’t say she’ll vote for Clinton — which is, of course, the only way of stopping Trump.

Yeah, I know; this was a lousy report. But I just don’t know how to moderate and take proper notes at the same time…

Open Thread for Monday, October 24, 2016

Come on out to the debate at Richland Northeast.

Come on out to the debate at Richland Northeast.

You know how you can tell when it’s a really slow news day? This way: Look at what the major news outlets are leading with. If no two are leading with the same thing, and none of the ledes are particularly impressive, you know everybody’s scraping the bottom of the barrel. For instance, at this moment we have:

See what I mean? The State doesn’t really design its website around what I would call a lede, per se, but the story getting the biggest play at this moment is, USC freshman Felder assaulted victim and police officer, incident report says.

Which further proves my point.

So… since no one else can find any news out there, why don’t y’all just come on out to the Senate District 22 debate tonight? I’m pretty sure you’ll find that interesting. I’m about to head out to Richland Northeast High School momentarily…

flier

Senate District 22 debate coming up Monday

On Monday night at Richland Northeast High School, I’ll be moderating a debate between Democrat Mia McLeod and Republican Susan Brill, who are competing to replace Joel Lourie in representing state Senate District 22.

The event is sponsored by the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, of which I am a member. It will be in the school’s auditorium, and will run from 6-7:30.

Y’all are welcome to come, especially if you live in the district.

Also… I’ll be working on my questions over the weekend, so this is your chance to offer any suggestions you have along those lines. What would you like to ask these candidates?

This is the only forum we’re doing for the general election. We selected it as the one truly competitive general election contest in the Midlands area. We may have missed some just as hot, but if so, I haven’t heard about them yet.

So come on out if you’ve a mind to, and meanwhile, feed me some good questions…

flier

Lawmakers urge Haley to remove recreation commissioners

I just received a copy of a letter the responsible majority of the Richland County Legislative Delegation just sent to Gov. Nikki Haley. It’s to follow up on what the lawmakers asked the governor to do in a meeting last week, before the hurricane.

It begins:

haley-letter

To read the entire 31-page document, click here.

Obviously, the governor has been quite busy since the meeting with the lawmakers, but one hopes she will attend to this as soon as practicable.

Actually, I should say, the two meetings with lawmakers. I understand she met separately with the minority that is NOT pushing for removing the problem commissioners.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering: The lawmakers who choose the commissioners do not have the power themselves to remove them. Just another of the insane things about special-purpose districts.

At this point, it is my duty as a journalist to digest the document for you, going through charge after charge. But I’m kind of busy with my day job at the moment. I thought I’d just go ahead and give y’all the whole thing now rather than delay. In the meantime, here’s a very fine news story done by my good friend John Monk.

Perhaps I’ll be adding to this post later…

Oh, one other thing: The lawmakers signing the letter (that is, the responsible lawmakers) are these (sorry I keep having to give you text as pictures; the PDF isn’t the kind that lets you highlight and copy text):

lawmakers

The OTHER lawmakers on the delegation are:

Darrell Jackson, District 21
John L. Scott, Jr., District 19
Dr. Jimmy C. Bales, District 80
Christopher R. Hart, District 73
Leon Howard, District 76
Joseph H. Neal, District 70
J. Todd Rutherford, District 74

Jaime Harrison and Matt Moore are my heroes

Matt, me and Jaime, on the day the legislation was signed to get the Confederate flag off the State House grounds.

Matt, me and Jaime, on the day the legislation was signed to get the Confederate flag off the State House grounds.

You might say “heroes” is a tad strong, but I wanted to draw you in and get you to read this, and both of these young men really do deserve a rather hearty pat on the back.

This is especially remarkable since y’all know how much I despise both parties, and Matt and Jaime are, respectively, the chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties in South Carolina.

But they are remarkably free of many of the most objectionable characteristics associated with being party chairmen in the 21st century.

To begin with, rather than being enemies who reflexively spit on the ground whenever each other’s names are mentioned, they are buds. CNN noted this in a piece back in February — the month of the presidential primaries here — headlined, “Odd Couple: How a Republican and a Democrat became friends in South Carolina.

The AP’s Meg Kinnard followed up this month with a piece headlined “South Carolina party chairs beat vitriol with friendship.”

And you’ll recall when I celebrated their unanimity on the day the legislation to bring down the Confederate flag was signed. See the above photo.

But there are additional reasons to applaud these guys.

Back to how much I despise parties… I’m not going to go into all the reasons I do, but let’s look at two biggies — two things that have done more to make the parties into destructive forces in our republic than any other. Particularly the first one:

  1. Party-protecting reapportionment. This is the biggie. If we fixed this, we would repair most of the damage the parties have done to our country. As things stand, almost every congressional or legislative district in the country is drawn — by lawmakers of whichever party controls the body — to make it completely safe for candidates of one party or the other. This makes the November elections a joke, and puts the real contest in each district in the primary of the controlling party. That means the only competition an incumbent has to worry about is a primary challenge from someone who is more extreme, more ideologically pure, in terms of that party’s ideology. That means both parties get pulled to their respective extremes, and the space in the middle — where members of each party can talk to members of the other, the place where solutions are found and commonsense legislation enacted — becomes depopulated. And our government flies apart, and ceases to function. Nobody can even speak the same language, much less find commonalities to build on.
  2. Straight-ticket voting. I hate this for what it encourages voters to do, and even more for what it encourages them not to do. It enables them to avoid thinking. Voters who choose this option don’t have to think about any of the candidates on the ballot. They don’t have to be informed; they don’t have to discern; they don’t have to make comparisons. Which means they don’t have to pay attention before Election Day, or on Election Day. They just choose a party, and go home. This makes an utter travesty of the voters’ role in our representative democracy. And most shockingly, half of the voters in South Carolina choose this option.

Knowing how much I despise those things, imagine how pleased I was to find Jaime and Matt speaking out against both of them.

Particularly the way reapportionment is done.

From a recent story by The State’s Jamie Self:

One way to make S.C. races more competitive, Moore and Harrison say, is to end lawmakers’ control over the process of drawing district lines.

The GOP and Democratic party leaders suggest a nonpartisan or bipartisan panel draw district lines, instead of lawmakers.

Massey, R-Edgefield, said convincing lawmakers to cede their influence over the redistricting process – and their political futures – would be a heavy lift. Even he would be “reluctant to give up that authority to an outside group.”

But Massey said he would support ending straight-party voting.

“I don’t think it’s too much to ask people to take 30 seconds to push all the buttons,” he said. But, he added, there will be “partisans on both sides that are going to go ballistic over that if you try to change it.”

Yes, they would. As they would totally freak out over reapportionment reform. There is probably nothing that incumbents will fight harder to hang onto than their enormously destructive power to draw district lines so as to choose their voters, rather than letting the voters choose their representatives.

But that makes me appreciate all the more Matt’s and Jaime’s willingness to take a stand on this.

Jamie’s story also delved into the evil of straight-party voting. The story wasn’t as clear in term of communicating what the party chairs think of that, so I contacted them both yesterday to find out.

I reached Mr. Harrison via email, asking whether he was willing to take a stand against straight-ticket voting. He responded, “Personally yes… It isn’t the stance of the party, because the issue hasn’t come up for a party position.  Nonetheless, I personally believe that is one of the many reforms we need.”

Amen. Later in the day I reached Matt Moore by phone and posed the same question. I didn’t ask for an official party position, but just asked whether he, Matt Moore, would take a stand.

And he did. There’s no proposal currently before lawmakers, but “in theory, I am for doing away with it.” He sees a need for “more informed voters,” and doing away with the straight-ticket copout would certainly be a way to demand more more knowledge, more attention, from voters.

We also chatted a bit about reapportionment, and it was along the lines of what he said about it in Jamie’s story:

Moore said he is glad his party controls the state Legislature, but the way district lines are drawn is taking its toll on the GOP nationally.

“It’s led to Republicans being in control of Congress, but being unsuccessful in presidential elections,” Moore said, adding the GOP’s difficulty in appealing to minority and younger voters stems from its candidates not having to campaign for their votes at home.

More competitive districts “would force candidates to go out and talk to people who don’t look like them.”…

And wouldn’t that be something wonderful? Lawmakers paying attention to everyone in their communities, rather than the narrow constituencies they’ve carved out for themselves through reapportionment.

I firmly believe it would cure a great deal of what ails our politics today.

And while it’s not a concrete step, I think it’s a great first step to have the chairs of both parties willing to talk about the need for change, rather than defending the intolerable status quo.

‘A bidness doin’ pleasure:’ Cindi on how Ron Cobb changed us

I hope y’all saw Cindi Scoppe’s column today on how the late Rob Cobb, the most infamous lobbyist in South Carolina history, changed our state:

I DIDN’T KNOW Ron Cobb back when he was buying up a tenth of our Legislature for the FBI.

Didn’t even recognize his picture when FBI agents subpoenaed campaign disclosure reports for all 170 legislators, and legislators and fellow lobbyists started whispering that Mr. Cobb was somehow involved in what would come to be known as Operation Lost Trust.

In fact, while I would learn and write a lot about the cigar-chomping lobbyist who hummed his signature “It’s a bidness doing pleasure with you” while the hidden video camera recorded him counting out crisp $100 bills for legislators who promised to support his horse-gambling bill, I didn’t actually meet him until five years later…

He certainly had a big impact on Cindi and me. We did some of our best work ever chasing the Lost Trust story. Before it was over, Cindi herself had gone to jail, and I had spent a year explaining everything that was wrong with government in South Carolina. Our coverage of the scandal, and my “Power Failure” series, played a big role in my becoming editorial page editor later.

All because of Ron Cobb buying votes and wheeling and dealing from his room in the former Townhouse, just yards from where I now sit. That hotel is undergoing a huge renovation, much as our political life did as a result of Cobb’s actions:

Our news department launched a yearlong examination of how the Legislative State produced not only corruption but a hapless government that answered to no one, and pushed along by that “Power Failure” series, Lost Trust and Gov. Carroll Campbell, the Legislature voted two years later to hand a third of the government over to the governor.scoppeonline3-2x2tighter-2-2x2tighter-2

Lawmakers unleashed the powerful State Grand Jury to investigate political corruption cases. They passed a reporter shield law after a judge ordered me and three other reporters held in federal custody for two days for refusing to testify in one of the trials. And voters elected a target of an earlier vote-buying scandal to fill an open Senate seat in the middle of all this, lawmakers amended the constitution to bar felons from holding office until 15 years after they completed their sentences.

There are still a lot of problems with the way our government operates — the Legislature still holds far too much power over state and local agencies, too many agencies still effectively answer to no one, the ethics law even after this year’s improvements remains far short of what it should be.

But those reforms did a lot of good. And Ron Cobb paved the way for every one of them.

Oh, and speaking of Warthenesque writing… I also appreciated this column because its style was more like my own than Cindi’s. Finally, it seems, I’ve rubbed off on her.

Cindi has always been very task-oriented. When she goes into an interview, she’s all business. When she writes a column or editorial, she intends to accomplish this and this and this, and she lays out her arguments in a perfectly disciplined form.

My own way of approaching interviews or writing has always been like the method Dirk Gently, Douglas Adams’ Holistic Detective, employed whenever he got lost: “My own strategy is to find a car, or the nearest equivalent, which looks as if it knows where it’s going and follow it. I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere I needed to be.”

I loved this digression into purely superfluous detail:

It was June 26, 1995, and I was working on a “where are they now” package of news articles for the upcoming five-year anniversary of Lost Trust becoming public. We met near the interstate, and I followed him to his townhouse overlooking the 10th hole of one of Greenville’s premier golf courses.

Longtime girlfriend-turned-wife Shelley was there to greet us, and they showed off their rooftop garden, where Ron was growing tomatoes and cucumbers, and the Stairmaster he said he used for 10 to 15 minutes every day after work, and he talked about how his values had changed since his career as a lobbyist ended. Of course we also talked about Lost Trust and the Legislature and what he thought had and hadn’t changed, and Shelley talked as much as Ron did.

I don’t remember all those details; I got them from reviewing my notes from our lengthy visit. The only clear memories I have of that rarefied encounter are the rooftop and Bella — the cat who kept running toward the wall and hurling herself into it. Ron and Shelley laughed each time, and assured me the cat was fine, that she just did that for attention….

Chamber joins demands for rec com members to go

You probably already saw that Richland County Councilman Greg Pearce has joined the majority of the county’s legislative delegation in calling on the problem members of the Recreation Commission to resign — and threatening to freeze their funding if they don’t.

That was good. Now there’s this…

Joel Lourie has sent me a copy of a letter from Carl Blackstone, president and CEO of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, making the same demand. Here’s a PDF of the letter. It’s one of those PDFs that won’t let me grab text for an excerpt, but here’s a screenshot:

blackstone

 

Lest you wonder whether Mr. Blackstone is speaking for the whole Chamber, he tells lawmakers at the end, “The Columbia Chamber and I join you in your call for change.”

blackstone-mug

Carl Blackstone

Joel welcomed the business community’s involvement, to say the least. He told me he met with some folks at the Chamber last week and the Recreation Commission mess was “all they wanted to talk about.”

“Our delegation needs to hear from you,” he said he told Chamber leaders. “I want our delegation to feel the heat.”

Of course, most of the delegation was already there.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this sort of stance by the Chamber is unprecedented, but I’ll say I don’t remember having seen the group stepping out into local political controversy to this extent since the late Ike McLeese was president.

So, the question rises — how much longer can self-exiled director Brown’s friends on the board continue to hold out in the face of this gathering consensus?

10 of 17 delegation members call for RCRC resignations

Lawmakers McEachern, Finlay, Lourie, Ballentine, Smith and Bernstein this morning.

Lawmakers McEachern, Finlay, Lourie, Ballentine, Smith and Bernstein this morning.

Well over half of the Richland County Legislative delegation today called on five members of the Richland County Recreation Commission to resign because of multiple incidents of malfeasance.

The 10 lawmakers demanding accountability are:

  • Sen. John Courson
  • Sen. Joel Lourie
  • Sen. Thomas McElveen
  • Rep. Nathan Ballentine
  • Rep. Beth Bernstein
  • Rep. Mary Gail Douglas
  • Rep. Kirkman Finlay
  • Rep. Joe McEachern
  • Rep. Mia McLeod
  • Rep. James Smith

Six of the 10 who signed the letter demanding the resignations — Lourie, Ballentine, Bernstein, Finlay, McEachern and Smith — appeared and spoke at a press conference at the State House this morning. Sen. Lourie was the chief spokesman, beginning and ending the prepared presentation.

The group emphasized that what they are doing is independent of investigations into alleged criminal wrongdoing. They said five of the seven commission members should resign immediately because of the following “acts of malfeasance:”

  1. “Disregarded the hostile work environment for employees.”
  2. “Blatant abuses of nepotism.”
  3. “Approval of irresponsible compensation.”
  4. “Multiple allegations of sexual harassment and other inappropriate conduct.”
  5. “Lack of effective oversight.”
  6. “Excessive litigation and costs.”

The five commissioners the lawmakers said should resign are:

  1. J. Marie Green, Chair
  2. Barbara Mickens, Vice Chair
  3. Weston A Furgess Jr., Secretary
  4. George D. Martin Jr.
  5. Joseph B. Weeks

The lawmakers also shared some information they had FOIed from the commission. One of the highlights of that was a spreadsheet showing the salaries of the 11 commission employees who make more than $50,000.acts of malfeasance

Seven of those 11 are named “Brown.”

With a recent raise of more than $30,000, the executive director, James Brown III, is currently making $151,800. He’s still receiving that salary even though he is on “voluntary” leave in response to the ongoing scandals centered around him.

Nice non-work if you can get it, huh? OK, back to the news.

The legislators also released figures showing that Brown is paid far more than other county recreation chiefs across the state. Of the big-county salaries listed, only one other was as high as six figures — that was the Greenville County director, with a mean salary of $131,520.

“Clearly, we have an unaccountable board, with no oversight,” said Sen. Lourie. “I regret that we didn’t step in earlier.”

Other points from the presser:

  • Rep. Smith said of the five commissioners, “This can only end in their resignations,” implying that there were avenues for removing any who don’t quit on their own. He wasn’t specific about how that might be done. But he served notice that today’s presser is not a one-time thing, that the pressure will continue until the problem commissioners are gone. Their offense is that they have been “serving themselves first, serving Mr. Brown and his family first,” at the expense of serving the public.
  • Rep. McEachern — the only African-American member present (which wouldn’t be relevant except for the way some other lawmakers have injected race into the issue) — spoke in particular of the way the commission has failed conscientious employees who have dared to speak up. “Instead of getting a hearing, they get punished.” This, he said, is “a structure that has failed.” Amen to that (I say as one who has called for doing away with such Special Purpose Districts for a quarter of a century now).
  • Nathan Ballentine noted something that I hadn’t realized. He said none of those present are members of the nominations committee that gets to nominate commission members (who are then appointed by the governor, technically). “The group behind me and others have not been allowed in the process.” (Rep. Jimmy Bales chairs the nominating committee; I’ll try to get the names of the others.)
  • Kirkman Finlay said the commission spent $35,000 of taxpayers’ money paying attorneys to do a study of the commission and its problems — then refused to release the study, and voted 5-2 to ignore its findings.
  • Beth Bernstein said she had an additional beef with the commissioners “as a woman and as a mother of two daughters.” She was speaking of the sexual harassment complaints that the commission has ignored.

More as I have it. I’m working on getting PDFs of the documents released today. If nothing else, I’ll scan them at home tonight…

The assembled media. Second from right is Ron Aiken of Quorum, whose reporting has done much to bring things to this point.

The assembled media. Second from right is Ron Aiken of Quorum, whose reporting has done much to bring things to this point.

Below are pictures of the five commissioners the lawmakers want to resign:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An illustration of the advantage of incumbency

Susan Brill, Senate candidate, watches as members of the Richland County delegation call on RCRC members to resign.

Senate candidate Susan Brill, left, watches as members of the Richland County delegation call on RCRC members to resign.

You hear tell of the advantage that incumbents enjoy over challengers in elections, and here is a prime example.

This morning, I went to the presser (which I’ll post about separately after this) where several members of the Richland County legislative delegation called on the worst five members of the Richland County Recreation Commission to resign.

You’ll recall that Mia McLeod did the same alone on Monday, and got good coverage for it (Mia was not present today, but signed the letter along with three other lawmakers who couldn’t make it).

Looking very alone standing back behind the assembled TV cameras, watching the proceedings, was Susan Brill, Rep. McLeod’s Republican opponent in the race for the seat Sen. Joel Lourie is giving up.

She told me after that she agreed with what the lawmakers were doing: “I think their action is appropriate, and long overdue.” But the fact that she is not the incumbent, and therefore not a member of the delegation, relegated her to the status of spectator at the event.

Could she call a press conference of her own? Sure. Would it be as well attended as this one was, or as Mia’s was Monday? Probably not. They are legislators; she is not. She showed her interest by showing up, though. (Of course, Mia isn’t the incumbent in the particular office she and Susan are seeking, but she’s in the House, which is almost as good.)

I didn’t see any of the other media types talking to her afterward. They were busy talking to an employee of the commission who had attended and thanked the lawmakers (who I missed talking to because I was talking with Susan and the lawmakers). But I could have missed it…

Mia joins calls for accountability on recreation board

Obviously, this is not news photo. But I needed art, so I went to her campaign website.

Obviously, this is not news photo. But I needed art, so I went to her campaign website…

This would have made my Open Thread last night, but I didn’t see it on The State‘s home page at the time. Maybe it hadn’t been posted yet.

In any case, I had heard late last week, off the record, that this was in the offing, and yesterday she made it official:

The Richland County Recreation Commission’s embattled executive director and five board members “who support him” should quit, a Richland County legislator said Monday.

State Rep. Mia McLeod said the resignations are necessary for the commission to regain the public’s trust amid ongoing state and federal law enforcement investigations into corruption at the office, and given civil lawsuits accusing director James Brown III of sexual harassment and other improper behavior.

Brown has denied any wrongdoing.

The Richland Democrat also announced she will push to give Richland County lawmakers the power to fire Recreation Commission board members if she is elected to the state Senate this November….

Sen. Joel Lourie — whom Mia is running to replace (the release about this came via her “miaforsenate” account) — welcomed her to the ranks of those calling for accountability. (Lourie, by the way, has remained neutral in Rep. McLeod’s contest with Republican Susan Brill.) You’ll recall that Mia was conspicuous in leading the charge against incompetence on the election commission, but was until now less so on the recreation commission scandals.

Rep. Beth Bernstein, who backed off last year after her House colleague’s aggressive announcement of interest in the Senate seat, also applauded:

And if you’d like to read her prepared remarks in their entirety, here you go:

“Thank you for joining us at one of Richland County Recreation Commission’s shining examples of what we can do right….The Adult Activity Center.

I’ve called this press conference today, not only as a member of the Richland County Legislative Delegation that appoints members of the County Recreation Commission, but also as a parent.

You see, my sons grew up playing rec league sports and our experiences were positive.  So when I get calls and emails from concerned parents, employees and community members whose fears are real and whose experiences aren’t positive…it’s heartbreaking.

We must remember, our actions will have a lasting impact on our children. As a legislator and parent…I know that we must come together to fix this situation.

So before I tell you what this is about…let me begin by telling you what it’s not about.  The issues and challenges we’re facing are not about race.  They’re not about politics.  And I would argue that they’re not even about the guilt or innocence of those who have been accused of wrong-doing.

This is about the people we are elected and appointed to serve…about their perceptions and their trust in our leadership.  It’s about honest, responsible and accountable government.

That’s why it’s critical that everyone understand that the dynamics at play within our legislative delegation are only exacerbated when members and the media engage in race-baiting and other divisive rhetoric, which diverts attention away from the real issues and positive solutions.

We may represent different constituencies within Richland County, and like the people we serve, we may be of different races, genders and political parties…but we can find common ground and work together for the good of this county and state that we love.

And while this unfortunate situation may be about a lot of things, race isn’t…or shouldn’t be…one of them.  When it comes to competency, corruption, leadership or accountability…what’s race got to do with it?

Don’t all of us want public officials who are competent and represent us with honesty, integrity and professionalism–regardless of race, party or politics?

Allegations of corruption and incompetence are not new to Richland County.  Just four years ago, I led the fight for accountability, transparency and restoration of the public’s trust when many Richland County voters were disenfranchised.

That’s why I can’t agree with colleagues who insist that we shouldn’t get involved. Truth is…we “get involved” every time we appoint any Commissioner to any County Commission. When things go badly as they have here, we don’t have the luxury of throwing our hands up and doing nothing.

That’s not leadership.

From sexual harassment to bribery, the allegations facing this Director and Commissioners are beyond alarming.  And although the FBI and SLED are investigating and multiple lawsuits are pending, none of us know when or how this will end.

If every allegation, rumor or innuendo prove to not be true….this Recreation Director and the Commissioners who support him will still be operating under a cloud of suspicion, facing a disheartened and frustrated public that simply has lost faith and trust in their ability to govern and guide this agency into the future.

Irrespective of guilt or innocence, these positions of public trust and the reputations of those who hold them have been tarnished to the point where public perception has become our reality.

I’m not here to speculate about anyone’s guilt or innocence. Obviously, elected and appointed officials are and should be held to a higher standard and sometimes legal and ethical probes are justified.  But there are times when we too, can be unfairly targeted and prosecuted in the court of public opinion without cause and due process.

And while I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, these allegations must be addressed, either privately or publicly.  When those who must defend against allegations like these choose to do so publicly, as the Director and Commissioners have here, they aren’t the only ones who are impacted. Their family members, the Commission’s employees and their families and the children and community members the Commission serves…all feel the brunt of an agency in turmoil.

I believe that the Director and the Commissioners who support him, want to do right by our children and this community. That’s why, today, I respectfully ask them to resign so that this Commission, its employees and our community can begin to face the challenges ahead–openly, honestly and without the cloud of suspicion and distrust that always accompanies allegations of corruption.

Stepping aside to defend themselves isn’t an admission of guilt.  It is simply a way to step out of the spotlight so that we can put it back where it belongs… on the children and communities that this Commission serves. That’s how we begin to heal and move forward.

It doesn’t matter who signs letters of inquiry. What matters is whether the Commission answers those questions. I implore the Commission to fully and truthfully respond to the FOIA request that my delegation colleagues have submitted. Those answers are due this week and although important, won’t change the way the public views this agency or those who hold positions of public trust within it.

What matters most now is our leadership and how we collectively address the challenges before us. I think we begin to do that through legislation that facilitates accountability.

Just a few months ago, I was proud to sign on as a co-sponsor of Representative Beth Bernstein’s bill, H.5293, which would remove County Legislative Delegations’ authority to appoint Recreation Commissioners and transfer the Commission’s powers to the County.

One of our biggest challenges is that our County Delegation, basically has the statutory authority to appoint County Commissioners, but lacks that same authority to evaluate or remove those Commissioners for cause, when the need arises.

But we can change that.

That’s why I plan to prefile legislation that will allow us to suspend or remove county commissioners we appoint.  Whether there are allegations of criminal misconduct or malfeasance, those who are appointed to serve the public cannot do the jobs for which they’ve been appointed, if the public no longer trusts them or the process. While this bill may not prevent wrongdoing, it’ll go a long way towards accountability and transparency.  That’s a first, but very important step towards restoring the public’s trust and confidence.

The people of Richland County deserve a Recreation Commission that serves the community in a transparent, responsible and responsive way.

Whether true or not, the perception is that this Commission recklessly disregards the public’s interest and concerns and wreaks havoc on employees who are simply trying to do their jobs free from threats, harassment, intimidation and retaliation.  And the fact that that perception has become our reality…is utterly reprehensible.

In the meantime, delegation members can send letters and recommendations all day long—but Recreation Commissioners aren’t bound by law to respond or comply.   Until we fix that, we’ll continue to operate the Recreation and other Commissions under an antiquated, failed system of governance that perpetually insulates public officials, to the detriment of the people they purport to serve.

Although our delegation may appear to be divided and some may argue, complicit with what has been happening, I’m encouraged and extremely hopeful that we will come together on this issue…that we will find common ground and continue to work together for the good of all of the people of Richland County.”

An exchange involving the Recreation Commission

Joel Lourie shared this with me, received from a member of the Richland County Recreation Commission:

clark-234x300

Thomas Clark

Good morning delegation members, my name is Thomas Clark Commissioner with Richland County Recreation Commission. I was appointed to the commission on April 17, 2016 thru February 27, 2021. I was appointed months or even year’s prior to any formal allegations against the current agency director James Brown. Since the boards 5-2 vote in support of the current director I’ve sensed a disconnect with current Board Chairwoman J. Marie Green due to the way I voted. On August 24, 2016 we held an emergency meeting to address a legal matter with agency or board legal team. During this closed session in the presence of Weston A. Furgess,Jr., Wilbert Lewis, George D. Martin, Jr., Joseph Weeks and Richard Morgan (attorney), Ms. Green was very disrespectful in tone as I tried to hand her a legal document that was given for the board to view. Ms. Green went on to slander me by stating that “You’re the reason that the FBI is investigating us.” Not only is this statement not true, but was slanderous to my character/has tarnished my position with my fellow board member’s. As I stated earlier all these allegations against Mr. Brown and said board members took place prior to my appointment to this board and nor would I sit back and have my name or character tarnished by the actions of other’s. I will not be intimidated or feel that I’ve done something wrong for taking a stand for the employees of this agency and the citizens of Richland County. With Ms. Green unprofessional conduct/character she should not be on or in leadership of this board and I will await your immediate response to this matter, Thanking you in advance for your time & attention.

Thomas Clark

Commisioner

Here’s how Joel responded:

Commissioner Clark –

 

Thank you for your email and more importantly, your willingness to serve on the Recreation Commission.  I know this is a very difficult time to be in this position and we need good people who are willing to do the right thing.  I am of the opinion that there are serious problems at the Commission which include not only the criminal allegations, but concerns over potential board malfeasance, nepotism, employee treatment and relations, compensation, and the overall delivery of services to the people of Richland County in a cost-efficient way.  These are problems that have existed long before your service and seem to have culminated in the last year or two.  I certainly do not speak for all the members of this delegation, but I can tell you that there are many that share my view and that we are taking all steps possible to bring about a positive change within the agency.

 

Hang in there, work hard for what is right for the employees and for the people of Richland County.

Best regards,
Joel