Bolton: Lexington-Richland 5’s Murphy should do the right thing

Associate EditorFebruary 14, 2013 

— SHOULD SHE stay, or should she go? That’s the key question in the controversy involving Lexington-Richland 5 board member Kim Murphy’s residency.

The answer seems obvious: If Ms. Murphy lives in Lexington County, she has no right to hold a seat that by law must be filled by a Richland County resident. State geographers have determined that she indeed lives in Lexington.

As a result, some board members feel they might be required to remove Ms. Murphy from office.

In some communities, this matter would be worked out amicably — even if it’s a difficult and emotional process. After all, this isn’t the fault of the school board or the member whose residency is in question. For 12 years, Ms. Murphy has believed she lived in Richland County, where she has paid property taxes and held a voter registration card. She filed to run for office in Richland in 2010 and was elected; she had no reason to think she wasn’t eligible.

But when you know better, you do better, even if it hurts. And in some communities, a board member who found herself in this position would — perhaps hesitantly and with heavy heart — willingly step down to honor the law and voters’ right to elect one of their own as their representative. And, some boards, if they have the authority, might consider allowing the member to serve out the unfinished term, given the circumstances.

The thing is, this is Lexington-Richland District 5, where “amicable” is rarely part of the lexicon when it comes to policy, politics and process. From bond referendums to school construction to student population to expenses, you name it, this district has had to constantly battle certain factions among its residents; while some of the critics are well-meaning, others haven’t had the district’s best interest in mind.

Over the years, Ms. Murphy has been among the district’s chief critics. While some of their motives might appear to be pure, too often, Ms. Murphy’s actions, and those of others who’ve worked beside her, have been anything but constructive; they have served only to divide the district, placing it — and its schools — in a negative light.

Ms. Murphy has come across as an obstructionist, a notion buoyed by her fight to stop the district from filling in a creek to make improvements at Chapin High School despite the fact that state environmental officials approved the plan. Her fight, which began before she was elected and continued afterward, delayed work and cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

When she joined the board, Ms. Murphy gained a new stage and new vantage point from which to wage her campaign against the district. She has been a divisive presence.

And that, as much as anything else, could play a role in how this all shakes out. I’d like to think that the board would take the same action regardless of which member was in this position. But, let’s be real. People’s track record as well as their actions and attitudes play a part in whether they get the benefit of the doubt in such matters as these.

There’s been some suggestion by Ms. Murphy and others that the school board somehow concocted this controversy, that it’s a vendetta aimed at getting rid of a crusader against waste and high taxes.

Don’t believe it. The last thing this board needs is to make a martyr of Ms. Murphy. That would only fuel the fire of the already fanatical group that follows and supports Ms. Murphy. When the courts finally slapped down Ms. Murphy’s challenge in the Chapin High case, that was a big victory for the board. It took some of the steam and sting out of her continued onslaught against the district. Why would the board stir things up needlessly?

But while I don’t buy the vendetta theory, Ms. Murphy’s adversarial posture hasn’t earned her any fans or earned her any leniency or sympathy votes.

Board chairman Robert Gantt said no one’s out to get Ms. Murphy. He said that in October he got reliable information that Ms. Murphy is a Lexington County resident and he felt compelled to investigate. Granted, the information could have come from someone who was out to get Ms. Murphy, but Mr. Gantt responded appropriately. The board couldn’t ignore such a charge.

Of course, because of the history between Ms. Murphy and Lexington-Richland 5, what should be a fact-finding mission has a high probability of becoming a fight, an all-out-war, if the district isn’t careful.

The board knows that, which is why it sought legal guidance and enlisted the help of retired Circuit Judge G. Thomas Cooper. Judge Cooper will review the case at a hearing on Friday. The board is expected to make a decision based on the judge’s findings.

I’m interested to see what kind of options the judge might present to the board should he conclude that Ms. Murphy is a Lexington County resident. Would the board be required to dismiss her, or would it have the option to allow her to serve out the term?

Mr. Gantt said the board might have no option. Citing the law that says you must live in the county as well as a statute that gives the board the authority to remove members for cause, he said the board might be compelled to remove Ms. Murphy.

But while the board might have the authority to remove Ms. Murphy, I’m not convinced the law requires it to do so. At one time I thought maybe the board should allow Ms. Murphy to serve out the term. It would be an act of good will that might de-poison the environment. But why do that if Ms. Murphy uses her remaining time to continue sniping at the district?

And can the board really allow her to occupy the people’s seat, particularly when there are those in Richland County who want to serve? What of those who ran and lost in the election in which Ms. Murphy won the seat?

So here is where I landed: Ms. Murphy’s fate lies with the board, but the board shouldn’t have to vote to oust her. Ms. Murphy should make the decision.

As board members, Ms. Murphy and her colleagues are required to uphold the law and act in the best interest of the district. Ms. Murphy hasn’t always done that during her time on the board. Now she has that chance. I wonder if she will do the right thing.

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

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