Richland Council doesn’t want to pay to clean up elections mess

cleblanc@thestate.comJanuary 6, 2013 

Some Richland County Council members are upset that the elections office mess will force the price tag for fixing the fiasco on to council, which has no power over the office.

The price tag might include either funding a newly created position for director Lillian McBride, the well-paid target of most of the public outcry, or shuffling personnel in the small Election & Voter Registration office.

Neither of those options is under council’s control. That authority is vested in the board that oversees McBride’s office. But state law requires the county to foot the bill – another so-called “unfunded mandate” that makes council politicians seethe.

County and state election officials also are drafting a plan that would add at least 20 new precincts, which would require some new voting machines and perhaps more poll workers.

The costs add up, because the county also must pay for lawyers hired by the board that oversees McBride’s office to investigate the Nov. 6 election meltdown and for McBride herself, said council chairman Kelvin Washington

“I’m aggravated about it,” Washington said Friday. “I have serious issues with it and we’ve got to find revenue for that.”

Washington said he hopes the election board that oversees McBride’s office will consider restructuring the office.

But, Washington added, County Council has no authority over that either.

Thursday after two months of resistance, McBride announced she would step down as director Jan. 12. But she said in a letter to the board that she hoped to continue working in the elections office.

Election board members indicated last week they consider McBride a strong candidate to again oversee voter registration in Richland County. That’s the post she held, at a salary of $66,429, until the county’s legislative delegation combined voter registration and elections into one office and put her in charge of it in mid-2011. Her salary quickly rose to nearly $90,000, almost the salary of Marci Andino, the statewide elections director.

County Councilman Seth Rose, the first to call for McBride to step down, said he’s not sure whether a request for more money or staff would be justified. “I would be skeptical based on the amount of increase the office has seen.”

Council vice chairman Greg Pearce said the elections office has enough money to operate now. Additional voting machines would be another matter. “I have no clue at this point what they’re going to propose,” Pearce said.

The elections office now employs Rochelle “Chelle” Epps as head of its voter registration efforts. Epps has worked in voter registration , and in the combined office, since the 1990s.

If a new position is created for McBride, that decision requires a vote by the board, according to the language of the state law that combined the two offices.

Section 5 of that law, written by the delegation, granted itself the authority to hire McBride.

But the election board, which the delegation selects, can name McBride’s successor and set that salary. It also can determine the size of the office and the salaries of its employees.

Section 6, gives McBride or her successor the power to hire and manage the jobs the board approves.

That appears to mean that after Jan. 12, interim elections director Jasper Salmond, a respected former Richland 1 school board member, could hire McBride if she fills an existing job. The same law appeared to block the board’s authority over the first director, McBride. A legal opinion issued at the time by the county attorney’s office supported that position.

But in November, as criticism rose, delegation member Sen. John Scott requested an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office.

A Nov. 26 opinion found the law to be “ambiguous” and written in a way that created an “apparent conflict” in sections 5 and 6. Ultimately, the attorney general concluded, hiring and firing power over McBride and future directors rested with the elections board, not the delegation.

Still, the board did not act. McBride’s decision last week was voluntary and she did not use the word “resign.”

That leaves her future in Richland County elections unclear. But it also leaves County Council wondering if it will face yet another bill for the mess.

Staff writer Dawn Hinshaw contributed to this article.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664

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