Bolton: Letts a roadblock to improved Midlands bus service

Associate EditorFebruary 8, 2013 

— IF MICHAEL Letts’ dogged attempt to overturn voters’ approval of a penny sales tax for buses and roads is an indication of how he would have served on Richland County Council, I’m glad he lost.

I wouldn’t normally say such about someone our editorial board endorsed, but County Council has enough characters as it is; the last thing it needs is an opportunist and obstructionist who would throw up ridiculous roadblocks to thwart progress, which is exactly what Mr. Letts is doing.

Bus officials had planned to begin desperately needed improvements soon, but have postponed them as Mr. Letts continues his crusade. Or should I say charade?

This is serious business. The Midlands bus system already was woefully inadequate when transit officials were forced to make deep cuts last summer, ending all weekend service and reducing evening routes, among other things. Some people who depended on the system to get to work, shop or the doctor’s office were left in a lurch.

Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority officials understood that. So, once the sales tax was approved in November, the transit authority announced plans to begin restoring some services such as midday and evening hours this spring. The intent was to fund the adjustments using a loan from the county — or some other funding source — and repay it once funding from the sales tax started to come in.

But transit officials are hesitant to make any improvements while Mr. Letts continues his fight. Columbia City Councilman Brian Newman, who chairs the transit authority board, said the appeal affects more than restoration of direct bus service; it also has affected the authority’s ability to apply for federal matching dollars and hire people for route planning and implementing new services.

At the moment, it doesn’t appear that Mr. Letts’ roadblock has affected Richland County’s plans as it prepares to oversee the massive building campaign, which includes roads and sidewalks, that will be funded by the sales tax. Of course, the county is still in the very early stages of the process.

Mr. Letts, co-chairman for Citizens for New Elections in Richland County, wants the sales tax vote overturned and a new election ordered. But he has lost appeals before the Richland County Board of Elections and the State Election Commission. He also lost his appeal before the Richland elections panel of his loss in the County Council race.

Not to be denied, back in December, Mr. Letts filed to have an appeal of the sales tax vote heard by the S.C. Supreme Court. Mr. Letts has said briefings to the court are due Feb. 15; there’s no word on whether the court will even agree to hear the case, much less when that would happen if it does.

Mr. Letts argues that county elections officials broke state law that requires one voting machine for every 250 people. Thus, he argues, the election was unlawful and needs to be tossed out.

There is no doubt that Richland’s elections were badly mismanaged. Officials didn’t follow the law in terms of having the proper number of voting machines at each polling place. But, thus far, all evidence suggests the cause was bad planning and terrible math. We know of no voting irregularities or fraud or intentional tampering. And state law provides no penalty for not meeting the voting-machine standard of one per 250 voters.

There is absolutely no reason to void the election results and call for a revote.

To do that, we would have to disregard the fact that approximately 160,000 people stood in the cold for five, six, seven hours. You can be assured that many of them had other obligations that could have been reason to give up and leave,

I am terribly sympathetic to those who had to leave to care for children or go to work or take care of some other pressing matter. But we aren’t clear on whether they number in the hundreds or the thousands. And Mr. Letts would be hard-pressed to prove that had those folks voted, it would have changed the outcome of the referendum, which won by a 6,591-vote margin.

I can understand Mr. Letts and others being upset by the unconscionable way in which the elections were run. I’m upset too, as are tens of thousands of others.

But as sad as it is that some voters didn’t get to cast ballots, it would be unacceptable to throw out the votes of those who did exercise that right. This is one of those unfortunate instances when things went so terribly wrong that there simply is no fix. The only rational and reasonable way forward is to take steps to ensure nothing like this will ever happen again, not attempt to overturn what are legitimate results.

Considering the emotions at work in the wake of the election fiasco, I don’t totally fault Mr. Letts for appealing the results at the county level, or even the state level. But how long will the case sit before the Supreme Court hears it? Or refuses to hear it? How long will bus riders have to wait to get the improved system that voters have agreed they should have?

I’m starting to wonder what Mr. Letts is really after. I mean, we’re talking about someone who went zero for two in November, losing his bid for County Council as well as his campaign to get voters to turn back the sales tax a second time; he was among those who led the charge to defeat the tax in 2010.

By demagoguing this issue, is he really trying to be the champion of the people? Or is there a hint of sour grapes at work here?

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or

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