Richland county election mess

Orangeburg elections chief to lead Richland elections office

dhinshaw@thestate.com May 15, 2013 

Howard Jackson

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— Howard Jackson was selected Wednesday to try to restore public confidence in Richland County’s bruised elections office.

After meeting with Jackson behind closed doors for about 35 minutes, the four-person Board of Elections & Voter Registration chose the Orangeburg County elections director to lead the $1.2 million office.

Jackson, 43, was the only candidate for the job, once two other finalists dropped out. The vote to hire him was 3-1, with board member Elaine DuBose voting no.

But some questioned whether the selection process – from a search committee’s refusal to release the three finalists’ names publicly, as required by law, to the board’s closed-door meetings – has hindered the rebuilding of trust.

Even the new director himself prompted concerns, when it was discovered Jackson was the focus of a SLED investigation over the distribution and collection of absentee ballots shortly after he was hired in Orangeburg. He did not disclose the probe to the board during an initial interview, calling the matter a non-story. SLED found no criminal wrongdoing.

Pete Kennedy, a poll clerk, said the way board members conducted their meetings, though legal, seemed secretive.

Kennedy said Wednesday he was disappointed the board chose to hire “the last guy standing” instead of starting over with a new pool of candidates.

“They’re trying to rebuild trust, so now they come up with an individual who was not truthful in his interview,” said Kennedy, who has attended recent board meetings, waiting outside with reporters. “You add that onto the mistrust we already had, and it just compounds it.”

Elections board chairman Allen Dowdy would say only that Jackson possessed all the qualities the board was seeking. “We’re putting our trust and confidence in him,” he said.

DuBose voted no, she said, because “I’ve got a few concerns that I feel after the probation period will be answered.” She did not provide details, nor say how long Jackson’s probation would be. The other board members, appointed by the Richland County legislative delegation, are Herbert Sims and Adell Adams.

Jackson said after Wednesday’s announcement his five years of experience with elections in Orangeburg County would serve him in his new job.

“I’m going to bring some integrity to the office, not that that’s lacking now,” he said. “I’m just excited about rolling up my sleeves and getting to work.”

November’s general election was, by all accounts, a fiasco – with a shortage of voting machines, long lines, frustrated voters, misplaced ballots and $153,000 in legal bills the county hasn’t agreed to pay. In its wake, director Lillian McBride was demoted to a newly created deputy position in the same office. The search for a new director started in April.

Jackson began as one of three finalists for the Richland County job but ended up as the lone candidate after election officials in Gaston County, N.C., and Sumter County dropped out. Issues were raised about their qualifications.

“Why couldn’t they have expanded their search? What was the urgency?” voter David Watkins, who also attended Wednesday’s meeting, said. “Then if they’d decided this was the right one, I would’ve felt better about it.”

Wednesday was the board’s third meeting in a week, with members gathering each time in private and refusing to provide details on the “homework” they said they were doing related to Jackson. Still, Dowdy said repeatedly the board’s mission was to regain the public trust.

Interim director Jasper Salmond will negotiate the new director’s salary, set at $75,000 to $85,000.

The election office budget could become an issue next week.

Election office officials have requested an additional $547,529 next year, mostly to hire temporary and part-time employees but also to buy office supplies and voting machines. Administrator Tony McDonald trimmed the increase to $119,010 for a total budget request of $1,347,584.

Richland County Council has the last word on the budget.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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