Scoppe: Legislative appointees: the protected class

Associate EditorNovember 18, 2012 

— LILLIAN McBRIDE is not an anomaly.

What distinguishes the head of Richland County’s election office from most legislative appointees is her high-wire failure, so spectacularly demonstrated first by four-, five-, seven-hour waits to vote and then by an unending string of malfunctions and missteps through more than a week’s efforts to count the ballots of those who persevered to cast a ballot.

But that very failure highlights the thing that makes Ms. McBride typical of officials appointed by state legislators: She’s bulletproof.

Like every legislative appointee I can think of, Ms. McBride can’t be fired by the legislators who hired her. That’s not because a few holdouts have manipulated legislative rules to prevent the vast majority of the Legislature from changing an antiquated law that makes it ridiculously difficult if not impossible to get rid of officials who aren’t up to the job. The very legislators who hired Ms. McBride wrote the law that prevents them from firing her — just last year.

That same law, as is typical, also gave Richland County’s legislators the power to hire — but not to fire — the members of the part-time board that technically oversees Ms. McBride’s office but that has no authority to remove her.

Which is to say, the board for which Ms. McBride does not work. Sort of like she doesn’t work for the legislative delegation. Because if your “boss” can’t fire you, then you really don’t work for her, or him, or them.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s one of the animating principles behind the push to let governors hire — and fire — the people who run state agencies. And in fact, despite their resistance to full gubernatorial authority, legislators have mostly embraced that idea, albeit indirectly.

One of the least-appreciated changes in the 1993 restructuring law allowed governors to remove, for any or no reason, most of the people they appoint to state governing boards. There are far too many exceptions, and simply letting a governor remove board members is a too-convoluted way to run a state agency; the governor needs to be able to appoint the directors directly.

But it’s much better for a governor to appoint a board than for the Legislature or a subset of legislators to appoint the board. (What’s worse than trying to run government agencies by committee? Trying to run them by a committee that is appointed by committee — which is what the Legislature essentially becomes when it makes appointments.)

And letting governors not only appoint but also remove their appointees is a huge improvement over the situation that existed before the 1993 law — and that still exists when it comes to appointments that legislators have so inappropriately kept to themselves.

Legislators appoint college trustees for fixed terms, and have no way of removing them before those terms end. Ditto the State Board of Education. And the State Agriculture Commission. And, perhaps worst of all, the board that oversees the state Transportation Department, which keeps building roads we don’t need in places we don’t need them, instead of building or, better yet, maintaining the roads we do need.

Fortunately, legislators have given up their power to appoint most state boards. Unfortunately, they have clung to their appointments to governing boards in their home counties. These anachronistic appointments distract legislators from their jobs of overseeing state government, disempower voters who elect county councils to run local government and, often as not, violate the state constitution. But they continue unabated because, well, because that’s the way legislators have always done things.

Over the years, I’ve asked a number of legislators why, if they must meddle in the administration of government, they don’t at least include provisions in their laws that allow them to fire their appointees. They’ve always replied with blank stares. That’s never been done, and so it’s simply not a concept that registers with them.

Once upon a time, there was no reason to write such powers into law. Senators started making local appointments back when we had one senator per county. There were no county councils, so the senator wrote the county budget, and decided who worked for the county government, since, essentially, he was the county government. He was all-powerful, and I suspect that when the senator decided it was time for you to go, he didn’t need a law to convince you it was time to go.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that everybody’s vote had to count equally, at least within a state, South Carolina was forced to apportion Senate seats based on population. So while rural senators continued to represent the entirety of their home counties, and parts or all of others, urban senators represented parts of their counties. Richland County, for instance, got four seats, which meant each senator had just a quarter of the local power that the single Richland County senator used to have.

But in some ways, that reduced power never fully sank in, and so as recently as last year, it simply didn’t occur to Richland County legislators creating a new election commission and hiring the first director of the new agency that they needed to give themselves the power to remove any of those people. Which worked just fine. Right up until the point that it didn’t.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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