RICHLAND COUNTY ELECTION MESS

Finalists revealed for Richland elections chief

dhinshaw@thestate.comApril 25, 2013 

Three Richland County election director finalists (Top row ) Adam Ragan, Howard Jackson (Bottom row) Patricia Jefferson

  • Elections director finalists While the search committee did not formally release the names, three members verified the finalists:

    • Howard Jackson, Orangeburg County’s elections director

    • Patricia Jefferson, Sumter County’s elections director

    • Adam Ragan, Gaston County, N.C., elections director

— Three names emerged Thursday as finalists for Richland County’s new election director.

But plans for fresh leadership at the helm of an office plagued by voter mistrust were clouded by drama and miscommunication.

Wednesday night, the search committee settled on three names but — in violation of the S.C. Freedom of Information Act — refused to say who they were when a reporter with The State newspaper asked.

Thursday morning, accounts differed on why the committee took that course.

Member Sue Berkowitz said she’d been misled by the chairman of the search committee, Herbert Sims.

She said Sims told the committee that, according to the county attorney, finalists could not be announced without their permission, which the committee did not have.

“In fact, Mr. Sims was given different information,” Berkowitz said. “He just either didn’t understand it or chose to tell the rest of the committee that we were not allowed to give it out.”

County attorney Larry Smith said he got a call from Sims during the search-committee meeting about identifying finalists.

“I informed him that once you get down to three, the law made those three names subject to being released to the media upon request,” Smith said. “I just told him they needed to know that, No. 1; and that, No. 2, the candidates needed to know that their names were subject to being released to the press.”

But Smith insisted he didn’t tell Sims the candidates had to agree to their names being released.

“The law doesn’t require permission from the candidate, and I never said, implied or suggested that it did,” Smith said Thursday.

Sims, reached by phone, said he would have to call back but did not. Efforts to reach Sims later in the day were unsuccessful, along with efforts to reach Allen Dowdy, election board chairman.

Committee member Norman Jackson, meanwhile, suggested that Berkowitz either “misunderstood or was misquoted” about who said what.

Jackson, a member of Richland County Council, said he told Sims he’d rather notify the applicants they were finalists before their names appeared in the newspaper. “It’s just common courtesy to do that,” he said.

But media lawyer Jay Bender said it’s silly to think the candidates — each of whom holds a government job — would not know their names were to be made public.

In view of public distrust created by the Nov. 6 election fiasco, Bender said, the selection process could have been an opportunity to reassure disenchanted voters.

“This was a chance for these people making a new selection to say, ‘Times are going to be different; everybody’s going to know what’s going on here; there’s not going to be any favoritism,’” said Bender, who is also an attorney for the S.C. Press Association, of which The State newspaper is a member.

Seeking permission before releasing the names of job finalists is not required under the state Freedom of Information Act, he said. The law states “no fewer than three” final applicants for a public job be made public.

While the next scheduled meeting of the board is May 8, Rep. Jimmy Bales, D-Richland, said a new director could be chosen early next week from among the three finalists:

• Howard Jackson, Orangeburg County’s elections director, who said Thursday he had not been notified he was a finalist

• Patricia Jefferson, Sumter County’s elections director

• Adam Ragan, 39, election director in Gaston County, N.C., who has worked for the N.C. board of elections as well as the federal election commission

Bales said each of the finalists exceeded qualifications for education and experience.

“They have good records,” he said. “I’ve checked the references in Orangeburg and Sumter personally.”

The new elections director — to be paid a salary of between $75,000 and $85,000 — will be charged with restoring public confidence in the voting process, following the botched Richland County election.

The director will replace Lillian McBride, demoted to a deputy position after long lines and misplaced ballots left voters frustrated and angry.

Elections director finalists

While the search committee did not formally release the names, three members verified the finalists:

Howard Jackson, Orangeburg County’s elections director

Patricia Jefferson, Sumter County’s elections director

Adam Ragan, Gaston County, N.C., elections director

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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