Scoppe: A lesson in representative democracy

Associate EditorJanuary 9, 2014 

Cindi Scoppe

— IT’S BEEN TWO months since the Richland 2 School Board rebuked fellow member Melinda Anderson for allegedly issuing a veiled threat to kill her grandson’s high school football coach for not giving him enough playing time, and we’re still hearing from people who are outraged by the board’s action. Not by its rebuke — first in the form of a statement from Chairman Bill Flemming and then, last month, as a formal censure — but by the fact that it didn’t do more. Some have suggested the board should have demanded Ms. Anderson resign, but the most common complaint has been that the board should have removed her.

And therein lies an important object lesson about representative democracy.

I suppose it’s understandable that voters would expect more. After all, in the past year we have seen the school board in Lexington-Richland District 5 remove a cantankerous board member, and watched as the Senate Ethics Committee forced an ethically challenged senator to resign.

But both of those actions were the culmination of quasi-judicial processes, which Richland 2 hasn’t had and probably doesn’t have cause to have, and the facts in both cases were far different than the ones at play in Richland 2.

In District 5, the issue wasn’t Kim Murphy’s behavior as a board member; it was the fact that she didn’t live in the district she was elected to represent. It would be sort of like removing the governor because we found out she really lived in Georgia.

And the Legislature is a special case, because the state constitution gives the Senate and House political life-and-death authority over their members — something that neither the constitution nor the Legislature through statute has chosen to give school boards or city or county councils. In any event, Robert Ford resigned as the Senate Ethics Committee was about to rule that he had violated the ethics law, and recommend that the Senate use its power to remove him.

There is an old law on the books, dating to the days when we had county boards of education that oversaw school district boards, that allows county boards to remove district trustees “for cause.” The Allendale County school board interpreted that law as applying to school boards and used it in 1997 to remove Charlie Cave after he pulled a knife on the board chairman during a meeting, and the District 5 board used it to remove Ms. Murphy.

But it’s not at all clear that Ms. Anderson’s behavior would represent “cause.” Although “cause” isn’t defined, Ms. Anderson’s conduct doesn’t seem to qualify under similar statutes in which it is defined, generally to mean malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, absenteeism and the like.

Although I find the allegations against Ms. Anderson completely believable and the actions completely outrageous, I’m not sure they involve any of those prohibited behaviors. And because the coach and the school officials who reported the threat all declined to press charges, in the eyes of the law she didn’t violate any law.

All of this left the school board in an extremely difficult place, where it likely had no power to remove a board member who shouldn’t be a board member, and where at best it would face a lengthy and expensive legal battle if it tried.

A public censure doesn’t sound like much of a punishment, but frankly, it’s remarkable that all but one of Ms. Anderson’s colleagues would vote to take such an action against someone they have to continue to work with. It’s easy to sit in your pajamas typing anonymous screeds into cyberspace. But how many of us, disgusted by the conduct of a coworker we have to work closely with and have no ability to fire, would tell her to her face that we don’t think she’s fit to do the job?

What the rest of us are left with is an unfortunate downside of representative democracy: The majority of voters sometimes — perhaps often — make lousy choices. Choices that the rest of us have to live with.

Yet absent extraordinary circumstances, such as criminal conduct, we don’t get to remove someone else’s representatives just because they act in ways we find unacceptable.

Although I can’t say for sure why our Legislature has not been generous about granting governing boards the authority to remove fellow members — it could simply be that the Legislature is reticent to give anybody other than itself the authority to do anything — there is a good reason for such reticence: It punishes the voters, which we really shouldn’t do even when they do make lousy choices.

That issue isn’t directly at play in Richland 2, whose board members are elected at-large, but in most cases, when you remove a lawmaker, all of her constituents go unrepresented until a special election can be held, while voters in all the other districts have greater proportional representation.

Several states allow voters to step in instead and remove their representative, through recall elections. But we don’t have that authority in South Carolina, and even if we did, I’m not so sure that Ms. Anderson would be recalled, any more than, say, Rep. Bill Chumley would be recalled for so grossly misusing state resources when he sent the state plane up to Washington to pick up a radio personality to testify before a legislative subcommittee on a bill on which he had no expertise.

Nor is there much reason to be optimistic that voters will replace her when she comes up for re-election this year. Indeed, in Allendale County, the voters reinstated Mr. Cave to the school board just two years after his colleagues removed him.

The problem is that incumbents have learned to keep themselves in power, increasingly, by appealing to the basest instincts of their bases. White Republicans who are under fire for allegations of misbehavior tend to blame conspiracies by a real or (in South Carolina) imagined powerful liberal elite, while black Democrats tend to blame their problems on white people determined to keep black people out of power.

Voters have the power to change this, by refusing to be taken in by such tactics. But the people who vote for sensible, responsible officials can’t make that change. It has to be made by voters who elect, and re-elect, state senators who profit from their positions and state representatives who squander taxpayers’ money — and school board members who tell district employees, “I’m so angry I just want to kill the coach, and I have a gun.”

It’s a pretty lousy way of doing things, letting gullible and extremist and otherwise irresponsible voters make decisions that affect the rest of us. In fact, about the only things that are worse are all the alternatives to representative democracy.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service