COLUMBIA — Three names emerged Thursday as finalists for Richland Countys 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 shed 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 didnt 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 didnt tell Sims the candidates had to agree to their names being released.
The law doesnt 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 hed rather notify the applicants they were finalists before their names appeared in the newspaper. Its just common courtesy to do that, he said.
But media lawyer Jay Bender said its 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; everybodys going to know whats going on here; theres 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 Countys elections director, who said Thursday he had not been notified he was a finalist
• Patricia Jefferson, Sumter Countys 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. Ive 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 Countys elections director
Patricia Jefferson, Sumter Countys elections director
Adam Ragan, Gaston County, N.C., elections director
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.