Richland County’s Election mess

Richland County council may decide Tuesday whether to pay election lawyer bills

dhinshaw@thestate.com May 20, 2013 

— A divided Richland County Council may debate Tuesday evening – behind closed doors – whether to pay the legal bills for investigating and defending in court a botched Nov. 6 election.

Councilman Seth Rose said he objects to a planned private discussion on paying three lawyers, including one who helped disgraced elections director Lillian McBride negotiate a new county position. All together, the three billed the county $101,675.80.

A fourth elections lawyer who ran up over $50,000 in legal fees was hired by the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority, which will get about a third of the revenues from a transportation sales-tax approved by Richland County voters in November. John Moylan is not being compensated by Richland County. The CMRTA will pay his bill, the bus system’s director Bob Schneider said Monday.

The CMRTA, while funded with public money, is not a county office.

At issue is whether county government is responsible for paying the lawyers hired to straighten out the election mess, or whether the legal bills – some of them, at least – should be paid by the elections office overseen by local legislators.

Under the proposal before the 11-member council, the bills would be covered by dipping into county savings.

“The public has a right to hear the debate on this issue,” said Rose, a lawyer who said he’ll take the rare step of objecting even if the county attorney asks for a private session.

“Council holds the last decision whether we go in a back room and hold a secretive meeting,” Rose said.

The legal bills of nearly $153,000 have proved to be a hot-button issue for some taxpayers.

The council deferred action on the typically routine matter two weeks ago, when some members specifically balked at paying attorney John Nichols for helping negotiate a new position for Lillian McBride. Efforts to reach Nichols were unsuccessful Monday.

McBride was in charge of the elections office, which ordered too few voting machines for the presidential election. As a result, some voters waited in line as long as seven hours; others went home without casting a ballot.

Nichols has said his job was to protect his client from being “railroaded.” She was demoted to a newly created deputy position.

Others on the council are unhappy about the biggest bill in the bunch – $72,423.10 charged by lawyer Steve Hamm.

Hamm was hired by the Richland County Board of Elections & Voter Registration to get to the bottom of what went wrong on Nov. 6 and why.

But the county has no authority over the elections office – that falls to Richland County legislators – and Councilman Greg Pearce has suggested it would be more appropriate for the legislative delegation to order the elections office to pay Hamm’s bill.

The council took Hamm off the clock in February. He hasn’t released his final report yet, saying he wanted to wait until the elections board hired a new director, which it did last week.

Smith, the county attorney, said he was looking for lawyers with expertise in S.C. election law when selecting Hamm as well as Helen McFadden.

Pearce, as vice-chairman, helps set and review the agenda. He said the county’s legal staff asked for a private meeting to review the lawyers’ itemized bills.

“It’s some sort of contractual thing,” Pearce said.

One of the council’s most senior members, Pearce said the county had a responsibility to hire a lawyer to represent McBride once she was named in a lawsuit. But when it came to negotiating for a new position, Pearce said McBride should have paid for her own legal counsel.

Chairman Kelvin Washington – who said he’s not hearing from constituents on the issue – said the council could decide to open the door on the discussion.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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