Category Archives: Midlands

The Hamlet routine: to press or not to press (charges)

None of these is actually my mailbox; I just needed art to go with this...

None of these is actually my mailbox; I just needed art to go with this…

Monday morning, my wife asked me if I’d done anything with our mailbox at the house — put anything in, taken anything out, whatever. No, I hadn’t. She said she’d come home mid-morning and found it open. And two pieces of mail she had placed in it Sunday afternoon, both containing checks to pay bills, were missing.

So we speculated that maybe the postal worker had come freakishly early or something — J vaguely recalled having seen the mail truck in the neighborhood on Sunday and wondering what it was doing — and made plans to contact the folks to whom the checks were mailed to make sure they arrived.

Then, a couple of hours later, I got a call from our credit union, with whom we have that checking account. Someone we had never heard of had just been in their Irmo office trying to cash a check from us for $680.42.

One of the checks we were mailing was for $130.42. Think about it.

While I can see how someone made that change, I still don’t know how anyone managed to change what was in the TO space. The check was to Lexington County, to pay a vehicle tax, and the name it had been changed to wasn’t even close.

Anyway, the credit union refused to cash it, the person left with the check, and the teller — who remembered us from when she worked in the West Columbia branch — called me.

So since the thieves have my account number and routing number, I ran over to the main office and had the account closed.

That was just the start. We had to change a couple of direct deposits, and some automatic payments — Netflix and the like. There were the two probably-stolen checks, and an earlier payment that hadn’t gone through, so we’d have to get with all those folks and arrange to pay another way.

Yeah, I know. You’re wondering why we were putting checks into our mailbox. A lot of people have asked that the last couple of days, accompanied by “Didn’t you know…?” No, we didn’t. While everyone and his brother is mentioning it now, no one had ever mentioned it to us before — and we’d gone our entire lives without anything being stolen from our mailbox. To our knowledge.

And like most of you, we don’t send out many checks anymore, usually doing electronic transfers. But that doesn’t always work out. Rest assured, if we send out checks henceforth, we’ll follow Moscow Rules — maybe changing vehicles two or three times on the way to an official U.S. gummint mailbox.

Next step, police reports. We live in the county, so I called the sheriff’s office and gave the details over the phone. Separately — since a separate crime was attempted in that jurisdiction — the credit union contacted the Irmo PD.

Which led to a bit of a dilemma for me.

Tuesday morning, the Irmo policeman who’d taken the report called me to ask whether we wanted to press charges. Not that there was a suspect in custody or anything — the police wanted to know whether they would have a case (whether we would testify that we never wrote a check to the person in question, for instance) before devoting resources to it.

I sympathized. The police need to prioritize, I understand. But being asked this question caused me concern on two fronts, having to do with opinions I’ve long held and expressed:

  • I’m all for looking out for crime victims, but I am adamantly opposed to them making decisions about prosecution. You’ll hear people say that “The victim’s family should decide” whether to pursue the death penalty in murder cases, for instance. That’s an outrageous suggestion in my book. We don’t have police and courts to act as agents of personal vengeance for individuals. Our laws against murder and passing bad checks exist because we, as a society, don’t think people should be allowed to kill other people or steal from them — such things are disruptive to civilization. (This is related to my oft-stated opposition to abortion on demand — to me, it’s a violation of the ideal of a nation of laws and not of men to have the one most interested person on the planet have absolute power over life and death.)
  • As y’all know, I don’t think we need to be locking up people who commit nonviolent crimes. Many if not most of the women in prison, from what I’ve heard in the past, are there for trying to pass bad checks. Don’t know if that’s still true, but that’s what I used to hear.

Add to that the fact that aside from being greatly inconvenienced, I had lost nothing, thanks to the smart actions of the teller who refused to cash the check (I told her supervisor she should get a gold star for that). The credit union wasn’t out anything, either — aside from time spent on this.

So I dithered. I asked the officer if I could call him back, and promised to do so by the end of the day.

I polled people about it, and everyone I talked to said of course you want them to prosecute. Still, I did the Hamlet routine — to press or not to press?

I finally decided that I had no choice, for the simple fact that it wasn’t about us, even though it felt like it. Whoever had stolen the checks, and whoever tried to pass the forged one (which could be more than one person), might do it again. For all I know, the person or people in question might do this all the time.

And that needed to be stopped, if possible. It wasn’t about what had or hadn’t been done to us; it was about protecting the rest of society. If we didn’t follow through, additional crimes might occur. If we didn’t proceed, the social contract would fray a bit more.

You know me — once I had it framed in my mind in communitarian terms, I called the officer and asked him to proceed.

If anything else interesting happens, I’ll keep y’all posted…

By the way, what would y’all have done (I mean, besides not putting the checks in the mailbox to start with)?

Why the Chamber took a stand on recreation commission

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The Columbia Chamber of Commerce joined calls for the problem members of the Richland County Recreation Commission to resign because this latest scandal is another in a string that have been bad for business.

“Everything’s about perception,” Chamber President Carl Blackstone told me last night, adding that the following have projected a terrible impression of Richland County:

The various criminal investigations are one thing, but regardless what happens on that front, the problem commissioners need to go, the business leader said.

And on this one, there’s little county government can do. “I don’t feel sorry for Richland County Council much, but I do on this,” Blackstone said.

Richland County has been “missing out,” he said, nothing that there have been only two industrial announcements in six years. And lack of confidence in local government plays a role in that.

“The business community is jut tired of the constant black eyes in the paper,” he said. “In Richland County, we pay a heck of a lot of taxes” — too much to put up with one mess after another.

“We deserve better.”

Anyway, that’s what he said on the phone last night. Today, he sent out this email to Chamber members:

Dear Partners, 

In August, ten members of the the Richland County Legislative Delegation called for the immediate resignation of Richland County Recreation Commission Director James Brown, III and five additional board members due to the allegations of impropriety and public corruption. In a letter sent to the members of the Richland County Legislative Delegation, the Columbia Chamber supported their call for action.

The mission of the Commission is crucial to our community and should not be overshadowed by the ongoing controversy. Now more than ever, I encourage you to become involved in your local government. Please see the current vacancies on boards and commissions: State Boards and Commissions, Richland County, and City of Columbia.

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.”

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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?

Do you have questions about the penny tax?

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I know some of you do, to say the least.

Maybe you’d like to go to this:

For Immediate Release

September 8, 2016

**MEDIA ALERT**

     WHERE DOES YOUR MONEY GO?  

Educational Forum Planned for Richland County Penny Tax

WHAT:    “Pennies Impacting People” Educational Forum

WHEN:    6:30 – 7:30 p.m., Thursday, September 15

WHERE:   Richland Library Main, Third Level Programming Space
1431 Assembly St.
Columbia, SC 29201

WHO:      Free & open to the public

Are you curious about how the Richland County Penny Tax works? Members of the community will have an opportunity to learn about specific projects that impact local transportation – including roads, sidewalks and greenway infrastructure. WIS News 10 Anchor Judi Gatson will lead a discussion with representatives from:

  • Richland County Council
  • Richland County Transportation
  • Richland Penny Program Development Team
  • The Comet transit system
  • Citizens for a Greater Midlands

A question-and-answer session will follow.

For questions, please contact Emily Stoll at 803-587-3637 or email estoll@richlandlibrary.com.

If I go, I might ask them to please stop using “impact” as a verb. We all have our priorities…

Kathryn on problems in university neighborhood

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Kathryn Fenner wins the prize. I’m not sure what the prize is, but she wins it for being quoted prominently in a front-page news story headlined: “Naked college students push neighbors to breaking point.”

This is something to which I’m sure many of you have aspired, but Kathryn got there first.

But let’s shove our envy aside and soberly consider what she had to say about the problems in her neighborhood:

Aside from calling the cops and filing reports, residents like Kathryn Fenner would like to see the continued expansion of police patrols.

“USC police have extended their patrol area to include University Hill,” Fenner said. “When they started doing that, we noticed that things got a whole lot better in our neighborhood.”

Plus, she has learned that students fear the university’s disciplinary board, which if used aggressively, could help curb bad behavior by off-campus students. USC shouldn’t be so desperate to keep students that they’re willing to put up with appalling behavior, Fenner said.

Fenner said she also worries that if someday she wants to move, she’ll have to sell her home to a future landlord. It would take a special kind of person to live in her neighborhood, she said.

“You’re losing some of the in-town residents,” Fenner said. “There are people who have just had it.”…

Which the story points out is bad because the more resident homeowners who leave, the more rentals available to unruly, and possibly naked, students.

Speaking of which — the story’s opening anecdote reminds me of the situation my wife and I ran into in the area several years ago.

Anyway, it sound like USC is onto something with the patrols in the residential area. What else do y’all think should happen?

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…

Give it a rest with the football! It’s BASEBALL SEASON!

We just GOT this beautiful, pristine ballpark, and they're going to put FOOTBALL in it!

We just GOT this beautiful, pristine ballpark, and they’re going to put FOOTBALL in it!

On Saturday, I flipped on the old TV in my upstairs home office, the one in front of the recliner I keep there, intending to glide off into a nap while half-watching something…

… and there was football on my TV!

It’s still August, people! I don’t get but a handful of TV stations — just the local broadcast tier — and if there’s going to be sports on one of them in August, it should be baseball! But was there a single MLB game on my limited set of choices? No. More’s the pity, because there are few things more restful on a Saturday afternoon than non-playoff, regular season, workaday baseball.

But wait — there’s the Little League World Series! But no. Those overexcited little kids running around don’t have the right sort of languid, professionals-doing-a-job approach that I prefer when I’m in nap mode.

So I snoozed with the TV off, the way cavemen did in their home offices.

Monday night, I’m in the kitchen and my wife turns on the TV in the next room, and for a second before she changes the channel, I could swear I heard football again! She says I didn’t, and there wasn’t any on the guide, so maybe I’m just getting jumpy. But it sounded like football!

Look, people, I know you’re all going to be going on about football at full volume 24 hours a day after Labor Day, which is bearing down on us, and that’s just one of the miserable facts of life in the season that would otherwise be my favorite time of year. (I’ll see leaves turning and feel a delicious coolness in the air, and someone will say, “Football weather!” and ruin it.) I’ll deal with it, and look forward to the World Series.

But let me have the rest of this week, OK? Stop encroaching on the last week that should be football-free.

And for sure, don’t give me more news like this:

Six local high school football teams will face off this fall at Spirit Communications Park, the $37 million home of the Columbia Fireflies minor league baseball team….

Aw, come ON, people! We just got this ballpark! I just went to my first game there last week, and you’re telling me next week there’s going to be football there? Really? You didn’t think there was enough football going on in enough places in September, you had to sully this place, too?

When does it stop? Yeah, I know — February, right? I’ll start counting the days…

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:

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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

Wrap your head around this: 1,300 more USC student beds

Peter Ustinov (on the right) in "Logan's Run."

Peter Ustinov (on the right) in “Logan’s Run.”

I was struck by this yesterday, but didn’t get around to sharing it until now:

The University of South Carolina will add around 1,300 new beds in privately owned student housing properties in time for the fall 2016 semester, seventh-most in the country.

A study by student housing and apartment market data provider Axiometrics found seven of the 10 university markets expecting the most new beds were in the Southeast or the Southwest. Arkansas led the way with an anticipated 2,319 new beds.

Several new student-oriented apartment complexes have recently opened in Columbia, including: Park Place, located at Blossom and Huger streets, with 640 beds; Station at Five Points, located at Gervais and Harden streets, with 660 beds; and 650 Lincoln Phase Two, with 297 beds.

Nationwide, a total of 47,700 new beds are scheduled for come to market in time for the fall semester….

Everybody else in "Logan's Run" Jenny Agutter, anyway...

Everybody else in “Logan’s Run.” Or Jenny Agutter, anyway…

Hey, I don’t care about nationwide. I care about the fact that, as many additional students as we’ve absorbed downtown in recent years, 1,300 more are moving in right now!

And that does count hundreds or thousands more that we can see under construction!

Already, walking down Main Street makes me feel like Peter Ustinov in “Logan’s Run.” This is bizarre.

Where are they all coming from?

Race card flung at Joel Lourie, of all people

Lourie at his recent retirement party.

Lourie at his recent retirement party.

As a smart friend of mine once said somewhat hopelessly, she feared that a thousand years from now, historians would look back and say, “The United States was a noble experiment, but they never got over that slavery thing.”

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Sen. John Scott

In the Midlands, in South Carolina, across the nation, there are a lot of issues that turn largely, if not primarily, on race. On the local level, race is the (usually) unstated pivot point on attitudes concerning, for instance, local school districts.

Some people still think of Richland One and Richland Two as the black district and the white district, although perception is catching up to reality, which has changed dramatically. District One has long been a black power base — with white influence clustered into a few zones within the district (Dreher, A.C. Flora). Now there is a struggle for the future of District Two that is largely rooted in racial identity.

Elsewhere — such as with the Richland County election and recreation commissions — race is a widely understood subtext, shaping viewpoints but not openly acknowledged. Until now.

Apparently, the defenders of the status quo at the Richland County Recreation Commission — a legislative special purpose district with a growing reputation that brings to mind the routine corruption on “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire” — feel backed into a corner.

How else to explain Sen. John Scott and Rep. Leon Howard suggesting there is something racist in the white majority of the county legislative delegation demanding accountability from the commission?

Sen. Scott even had the nerve to bring the notoriously, spectacularly incompetent Lillian McBride (of the election commission meltdown) into the equation, as though that helped his case:

“This is the second time the same group has made an inquiry as it relates to an African-American director,” Sen. John Scott said, referring to then-Richland County election director Lillian McBride.

Sen. Joel Lourie, one of the letter’s authors, said Scott’s suggestion is offensive….

And well he should say that. Sen. Lourie, I mean.

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Rep. Leon Howard

It’s a sad day when Joel Lourie has to defend his good name in the twilight of his Senate career, saying, “‘My family and I have a very proud record of community and race relations for the last 50 years.”

Indeed they have. Sen. Darrell Jackson has a Senate seat because Joel’s father, Isadore, gave up his seat in order to let an African-American have a shot at it.

And Joel’s record as a champion of social justice is impeccable — as is those of others being smeared by innuendo, such as Reps. James Smith and Beth Bernstein.

The saga of the recreation commission was sordid and shameful enough. Messrs. Scott and Howard have made it more so, by choosing such an inexcusable manner of defending it.

A little Nice music, from Soda City

My wife and I were at Soda City Saturday morning, and I paused to shoot some pictures of this young busker who was playing the cello.

As we walked away, it suddenly hit me: “Was that ‘La Marseillaise‘?” Yes, my wife told me.

So, thinking of it as something nice for the folks in Nice after what happened there on Bastille Day, I turned back to shoot video — just as the piece was ending. But I got the last few seconds for you.

Just as well — we had just spent the last of our cash on vegetables, so I couldn’t put anything in the case.

Sorry, kid. Maybe next week…

A problem with the new Passport parking system

ticket

I’ve enjoyed, for the most part, using the city’s new Passport parking app. I haven’t minded — much — paying that 35-cent-a-session fee for the convenience.

And of course, the most convenient thing about it is that wherever you are, you can extend your parking session — by 15, 30, 45 minutes, an hour or more. No more excusing yourself from a meeting and running a block to plug in more quarters.history

But here’s the thing I don’t like: If you miss the end of your session by so much as a split second, you can’t extend the session. And worse, you can’t start a new one!

And I see absolutely no reason for this. If I were doing it the 20th century way, no one would stop me from going down and plugging another quarter in. So why should this new technology, which has no reason to be, be even less convenient in that regard than the old way?

This problem doesn’t arise if the app works as advertised. It’s supposed to give a two-minute warning before the session runs out — plenty of time to tap in an extension. But in my experience, that warning comes only about half the time.

Here’s what happened to me today, as evidenced by the ticket above and the screenshots at right…

I started a one-hour session on Assembly Street at 9:01 a.m., and went up for my breakfast. (Oh, for the troll out there who always acts SHOCKED at the hour at which I start my day, see what happens to your body clock after decades of working at a morning newspaper. I start my day later than average, and work on later than most in the evening. As I did all those years at the paper.)

Anyway, I had just started reading another item on my iPad (I read three newspapers at breakfast, plus other stuff brought to my attention via social media) when it occurred to me that my session must be almost up. As it happened, I checked precisely at 10:01, and it said my session had just expired. So I immediately tried to start another session — just 15 minutes — to give me enough time to get to my vehicle (and then some).denied

I got the rejection you see at right (click to make it bigger). As I expected. I shrugged, knowing I was already in violation (but a bit peeved that I was being prevented from addressing that), finished reading what I was reading, and headed down to my truck. I got there at 10:12. The ticket on my windshield had been written at 10:06 — five minutes after my good-faith effort to extend my session by 15 minutes.

Yep, I courted that ticket by reading for another few moments before heading down. If I had not, I probably would have arrived at the moment the meter maid was printing out the ticket.

So no foul. Late is late, and them’s the rules of the game.

But isn’t the point of the Passport app to allow people to do what I was more than willing to do — pay more for a few minutes more, just as I would be allowed to do were I standing at the meter with coins or Smart Card in hand? (And remember, I was NOT trying to exceed the meter’s two-hour limit — I would have been 45 minutes short of that.)

This seems a flaw in the system to me. And I see no good reason for it. Do you?

I’ve got no beef with paying this fine — despite the failure of the warning that was supposed to sound and let me know I was nearing the end of my session. But I do think this “lockout” feature, which seems a matter of policy, should be changed.

Fire Department’s social media flap has gotten out of hand

19th century --- by Raffet --- Image by © Gianni Dagli Orti/CORBIS

19th century — by Raffet — Image by © Gianni Dagli Orti/CORBIS

This is getting to be like the French Revolution — heads are rolling everywhere, and the tumbrils keep rumbling up.

The Fire Department has now fired three people for inappropriate social media posts (while Richland County has fired a fourth).

And — and this seems more extreme than anything — it’s shutting down fire stations for fear of retaliation.

This has really gotten out of hand.

I wonder — if Chief Aubrey Jenkins and other city officials had known there would be these other cases coming down the pike, would they have fired the first guy? Now there’s this precedent, and they seem unable to stop themselves from firing one after another.

I sort of have the feeling they were thinking, “Fire this one guy, and that’s the end of the problem. Others so inclined will be forewarned.” Reckoning without the fact that others had already done likewise.

Anyway, this has gotten messy.

Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter is having a rally Saturday. Um, excuse me — didn’t they just have one? Isn’t that how all this started? Is this different groups of people calling themselves “Black Lives Matter,” or what?

It’s all a bit disorienting…

The firing of Capt. Jimmy Morris

One of the great things about the internet, or so I’m told, is that everybody can publish anything they want any time for the whole world to see, without any professional editors getting in the way.jimmy morris

One of the truly awful things about the internet, I know from experience, is that everybody can publish anything they want any time for the whole world to see, without any professional editors getting in the way.

Self-publishing amateurs sometimes wonder, is there a boundary? Is there something I might say on the Web that will get me in serious trouble? Where is that line?

As a professional editor, I can tell you that the answers are, yes, hell yes, and somewhere in Capt. Jimmy Morris’ rear-view mirror.

Morris, a 16-year Columbia Fire Department veteran, ran screaming over that boundary with this Facebook post referring to the Black Lives Matter protesters who were blocking I-126 Sunday night:

Idiots shutting down I-126. Better not be there when I get off work or there is gonna be some run over dumb asses.

Apparently having read that back over, and deeply concerned that maybe he hadn’t been quite inappropriate enough, he added this an hour later:

Public Service Announcement: If you attempt to shut down an interstate, highway, etc on my way home, you best hope I’m not one of the first vehicles in line because your ass WILL get run over! Period! That is all….

The next day, he was fired from his job with the fire department.

Let’s just leave race out of this for the moment (ex-Capt. Morris is white; the Black Lives Matter protesters, in case you just aren’t paying attention, are not — and the station where Morris worked is in a mostly black neighborhood). Pretend there’s no such thing as race: Who, unless he’s blind drunk or something, thinks that’s an appropriate message for a ranking public official to post about the general public?unnamed (1)

Another, tougher question: What would be the motive for that message in a world where race was not a factor? What’s the cause of all that bile?

Since we live in world that does have the problem of race, we’ve come to recognize certain types of communications that derive their flavor from that factor.

And those messages have a distinctly familiar flavor.

There’s a lot more I could say about someone in such a position who responds this way to protesters who already believe that the public-safety sector has it in for people like them.

But I’ll step back now and let y’all comment…

 

Y’all, the Walk for Life team will be cranking up before long

Walk1

Last week, I attended a kickoff meeting for team captains for Palmetto Health Foundation’s 2016 Walk for Life. Or, to be more formal, the “Walk for Life and Famously Hot Pink Half Marathon, 5K and 10K.”

The kickoff was held at the Fireflies’ new ballpark, which will be the departure point for the Walk this year. It was my first time there. Nice.

Anyway, I’m going to start getting the team organized soon, so make your plans to participate and help beat breast cancer.

It all happens on Oct. 22, so mark your calendars…

ballpark

Is RCRC chief ‘The most powerful black man in South Carolina’?

Things are continuing to heat up over at the Richland County Recreation Commission, causing Sen. Joel Lourie to send this message this morning to his fellow members of the county legislative delegation:

Dear Fellow Delegation Members –

I wanted to make you aware of the recent developments with the Recreation Commission.

Joel 2

Sen. Joel Lourie

The story on WACH fox is alarming and very, very concerning.  I think we are in crisis mode and like me, I am sure you have heard from constituents who are demanding change.  I cannot imagine what is like for the employees working there, but it sounds like a “living hell”.  We cannot sit quietly and ignore what is happening.  Please join me in insisting the commission take action on the recommendation of the delegation last week to suspend the director until the investigation is concluded and the cloud of uncertainty and fear is removed.  My friends, I have never seen anything like this in all my years of public service and we owe it to the employees and citizens of Richland County to take action.  I hope to be speaking with many of you in the days ahead about this urgent matter.

Wishing you and your family a safe holiday weekend  –

Joel Lourie

Here’s the WACH-Fox story he alluded to, which featured some pretty lurid quotes from an unnamed “whistleblower:”

Sexual harassment, bullying and a long line of nepotism are what a whistleblower says the Executive Director brings to the Richland County Recreation Commission. A person with ties to the commission spoke exclusively with WACH FOX News and The State newspaper, saying they and many others are scared for their lives.

“We’re scared. I mean, we’ve heard that he carries a gun in the office.. so we’re.. we never know when he will flip and turn on us because he has said many times that if he goes down, he’s taking all of us with him.”

The whistleblower says Executive Director James Brown III has been making threats for at least two years, but they have gotten worse since the first of multiple lawsuits were filed.

“He has bragged about having sexual relations in the bathroom at the job, and he’s also bragged saying he only needs to throw fifty dollars to certain people- you know, out of his pocket, to get what he wants.”…

The whistleblower says in the last year, about fifteen people have been fired- most of them in retaliation for speaking out against him.

“He thinks it’s a joke, and he thinks he’s the most powerful black man in South Carolina, and he has said that and said that he knows he can get away with anything.”…

The story in The State was less sensational, but on firmer ground. Rather than quoting the anonymous source, he paper stuck with named sources and documents:

An employee of the highly scrutinized Richland County Recreation Commission who is one of several recently to sue the agency was fired this week.

It’s the most recent plot point in a continuing narrative characterized by inflammatory accusations, numerous lawsuits and investigations by local, state and federal agencies launched in recent months into the commission and its executive director, James Brown III.

Anthony Cooper, the commission’s bond director, was fired by the agency Wednesday, according to Cooper’s attorney, J. Lewis Cromer. Cooper’s termination letter cited him as “placing documents in the Dumpster in violation of a current litigation hold,” Cromer said in a statement Thursday.

But Cooper, Cromer said, had outwardly accused higher-ups in the commission of shredding documents that might have been the subject of investigations….

The plot sickens.

I just called Joel to chat further about this, but missed him. I left a message saying that I bet I know one thing he won’t miss about his job as a senator…

One of the commission's many facilities.

One of the commission’s many facilities.

Donnie Myers makes list of America’s 5 ‘deadliest prosecutors’

And it’s getting lede treatment by The Guardian, in keeping with that newspaper’s fascination with us barbarous Americans with our guns and capital punishment.

Excerpts:

The five are profiled in a new report from Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project. Titled America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors, the report highlights the lion-sized role in the modern death penalty of just four men and one woman. Donnie Myers

They are: Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, North Carolina; Donnie Myers of Lexington, South Carolina; Bob Macy of Oklahoma County; Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia County; and Johnny Holmes of Harris County, Texas….

Myers is the only one of the five who is still in office, with plans to retire at the end of the year. The lawyer, the one with the electric chair paperweight on his desk, did not respond to the Guardian’s questions about his inclusion in the top five club of deadliest prosecutors.

He achieved 39 death sentences in the course of his 38 years in practice but labored under a 46% rate of misconduct that was later discovered. Six of his death sentences were overturned due to problems in the way he had secured a capital sentence – often involving discriminatory exclusions of jurors based on race.

The report notes that Myers once rolled a baby’s crib draped in black cloth in front of a capital jury and, crying profusely, told them that a failure to return a death sentence would be like declaring “open season on babies in Lexington County”. In another death penalty case, he referred to the black defendant as “King Kong”, a “monster”, “caveman” and “beast of burden”….

Myers, of course, will be replaced by former deputy Rick Hubbard, after Hubbard’s victory in Tuesday’s primary.

Here’s part of what Cindi wrote about Hubbard in The State‘s endorsement of him:

Mr. Hubbard doesn’t speak ill of his former boss, but he does acknowledge that there have been problems in the office. He does note that he does not share Mr. Myers’ “old-school style of doing things.” And he makes a convincing case that he would represent a clean break….

Mr. Hubbard also seems to have the deepest appreciation of the three of the moral duty of a prosecutor to seek justice regardless of public opinion, and to seek justice even when that means losing a case. As he put it, “A prosecutor’s job is to do the right thing and to do it for the right reason.” After 40 years of a win-at-any-cost solicitor, the people in Lexington, Edgefield, McCormick and Saluda counties deserve a prosecutor who is deeply committed to putting justice first, always, and who has the experience and expertise to deliver that justice in a steady, reliable way….

Your thoughts about a TIF for Finlay Park?

This doesn’t move me much either way, but I was just wondering whether any of y’all have strong opinions about this proposal floated by the Columbia mayor:

A multimillion-dollar renovation of Finlay Park and a pedestrian-friendly remodeling of parts of two major downtown streets might be within reach if local governments will agree to a controversial financing plan being floated by Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.Steve Benjamin Twitter

Benjamin said last week that he’s working on a proposal to create a small taxing district that would capture property taxes on buildings along Assembly Street stretching north to Laurel Street, west to just behind the rundown park and south to Washington Street.

The largest source of income would come from a proposed $60 million to $70 million, 15-story apartment building called The Edge that a Chicago-based company wants to construct near the Richland County library, Benjamin said….

Mayor Steve may propose this at an August council meeting, so you’ve got time to either encourage him or head him off with a tidal wave of protest…

This was the only picture of Finlay Park that I could find in my archives -- it's from a rehearsal of "Pride and Prejudice" in 2012.

This was the only picture of Finlay Park that I could find in my archives — it’s from a rehearsal of “Pride and Prejudice” in 2012.