Editorial: Richland elections office should pay its own legal fees

May 16, 2013 

The wait was over four hours to vote at Rice Creek Elementary on Hard Scrabble Road in Columbia on Nov. 6, 2012.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

IT DIDN’T make sense for Richland County Council to pay legal fees resulting from the Nov. 6 election fiasco when they appeared to involve only attorneys’ work to determine what caused the mess and to defend against lawsuits seeking to overturn results.

It makes even less sense now that we have learned that the nearly $153,000 price tag includes money to pay a lawyer who helped negotiate against the Elections and Voter Registration office — more accurately, county taxpayers — to secure a new county job for former director Lillian McBride. That is outrageous. Not only should County Council refuse to pay a dime, but county officials should demand that Ms. McBride pay for her own personal legal counsel.

The only reason public money should have been used to provide legal representation for Ms. McBride is if she had been sued in her capacity as director. It’s unfathomable that she was granted an attorney to make sure she maintained a government job. Her attorney, John Nichols, was quoted in The State as saying his job was “simply to, I think, make sure that the mood of the time did not railroad her.”

She didn’t get railroaded; taxpayers did. Although we did not object to Ms. McBride being placed in an office commensurate with her skills, the board was overly generous in its treatment of the official who presided over arguably the most flawed election in modern S.C. history. While she resigned from her $89,124-a-year job as director, Ms. McBride landed softly in a newly created position that pays $74,600 a year.

Some council members were blindsided by these legal fees, particularly those for Ms. McBride. Quite frankly, although the county attorney might have the authority to hire outside counsel, it’s disturbing that he would not fully apprise the council before approving such a controversial expenditure — particularly one that he knew would require an extra appropriation. The county attorney’s office doesn’t have the money to pay the fees and is counting on the council to do so.

But County Council shouldn’t spend tax money to clean up a mess it didn’t make. No one under the council’s authority had anything to do with the fiasco that left many voters standing in line for hours to cast ballots and led others to leave before they got a chance to choose. Although the council is required by law to fund the Elections and Voter Registration office, it has no say in how it is run. Local legislators chose Ms. McBride to run the office and appointed the county Board of Elections, which oversees the director and the elections process.

Considering the elevated level at which at County Council is mandated to fund the elections office, that department should shoulder the legal costs. The 2011 law Richland legislators passed merging elections and voter registration requires the county to provide the combined office with a budget at least equal to the average of the annual budgets for the Charleston and Greenville county boards of election and voter registration.

Prior to the merger, the separate elections and voter registration offices had a combined budget of just less than $800,000. Once the new law was passed, County Council was forced to provide the office with a budget of $1.17 million — an increase of nearly $400,000. This fiscal year, the council approved $1.23 million, an amount above what the law required.

Who on earth could argue that even more taxpayer money should be spent on legal fees generated by this unaccountable office because it did its job so badly?

(Howard Jackson of Orangeburg County on Wednesday was selected as Richland County’s new elections director.)

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