Bolton: Take them off

Associate EditorJune 10, 2012 

AS INTRIGUING as the race for Lexington County coroner might appear to be, it’s a match that shouldn’t even appear on the ballot.

And it’s not alone. Few countywide offices ought to be elected. Frankly, there’s no reason for any to be on the ballot other than the sheriff and the solicitor.

I understand the interest in seeing how the competition will turn out between Lexington County Coroner Harry Harman, who has served 35 years, and Frank Barron III, who served as Richland County’s coroner for 23 years. Likewise, it will be interesting to see if veteran Lexington County Councilman Bill Banning can unseat county Treasurer Jim Eckstrom.

But whatever amount of excitement these candidates and their supporters are able to create, these are administrative offices whose duties are set out in law; they don’t make policy. When these officials operate their offices efficiently and within budget, they’ve done their jobs.

So it makes no sense for the offices or coroner, auditor, treasurer, register of deeds, probate judge and clerk of court to be on the ballot. They only serve to clutter the ballot, making voters’ wait longer than need be.

But the bigger concern is that this is no way to choose what are — or should be — professional managers to oversee offices that are key to operating government and serving the public.

By putting these positions on the ballot, we’re asking voters to hire the best administrators through a political process, which is practically impossible. Most voters don’t get to meet the candidates and don’t get enough relevant information during a campaign to make a sound decision.

The fact is that you can’t determine who will be the best office manager based on what candidates say in public forums and speeches — or even in promise-laden campaign material.

In the Lexington coroner’s race, both candidates understandably cite their experience as reason voters should elect them. But what can they say on the campaign trail to really help people determine who would be the best manager?

Mr. Harman talks about his solid staff and his desire to have them continue serving the county. If he’s reelected, he promises to add space at the coroner’s office to store DNA samples.

“You don’t know what you’re going to have to store and how long you’re going to have to store it,” he said.

Voters have been sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to hear those words, right?

And Mr. Barron?

His campaign slogan is “Saving Lives.” He said he saw so much tragedy in his years as Richland’s coroner that he began to recognize patterns and work to address the problems. If voters give him the opportunity, he promises to be an active coroner by showing up at death scenes and helping with investigations.

“There are many times when you’re in the position of coroner where if you’re active and on the scene, you can make a lot of difference,” he said.

The promises Mr. Harman and Mr. Barron make are fine. But come on. This is no way to choose professional managers. The best way to hire for these positions — and know what you’re doing — is for a county council or committee and staff to conduct in-depth interviews, review and verify resumes, do background checks and follow up with references.

We would get deeper, more qualified pools of candidates if these were appointed positions.

Many quality people are turned off by political campaigns. But they might be willing to engage in an appointment process that resembles the real world when it comes to applying for a professional job.

Injecting politics into these offices by having people post a “D” or “R” behind their manes only serves to create unnecessary partisan division, when the focus ought to be on delivering fundamental services. What’s so partisan about investigating deaths or issuing tax bills or setting court schedules?

In a letter to the editor that ran on this page, Mr. Barron, referring to his days as Richland’s coroner, wrote that as Richland County became more Democratic, he was forced to make a choice: “Leave the Republican Party or no longer be coroner. I preferred defeat to compromising what I believe in.”

First of all, Mr. Barron didn’t lose his seat simply because Richland County was turning more Democratic; he was defeated by a better opponent in Gary Watts, and he had substantial personal and professional baggage that helped doom him.

But on to my point: While he might be proud that he stood on his Republican principles, the fact is that neither Mr. Barron nor anyone else should have to run for these ministerial offices in a race draped in politics.

Lawmakers should do the public a favor and make these appointed positions. With them off the ballot, voters would have more time to focus on those seeking offices that shape the policies and laws that govern us.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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