The three Richland County Recreation Commission members who chose not to resign but to fight Gov. Nikki Haley’s decision to fire them had no apologies when they showed up Wednesday at a hearing called by the governor to give them a chance to say why they shouldn’t be fired for gross mismanagement and neglect of duty.
During an almost three-hour session at the House of Representatives’ Blatt Building, the three board members – chair J. Marie Green, vice-chair Barbara Mickens and Thomas Clark – offered spirited defenses and no excuses. And they said news media reports about their commission were false, inflammatory and made matters worse.
In recent days, four board members – Weston Furgess Jr., Wilbert Lewis, George Martin and Joseph Weeks – chose to resign rather than to contest Haley’s decision to remove them from office.
The hearing was conducted by three Haley-appointed lawyers with experience in labor and business law: Tommy Lydon, Derrick Williams, both of Columbia, and Ashley Cuttino, of Greenville. Haley asked them to listen to the commissioners and make a recommendation about whether the three should be removed from office.
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Green, Mickens and Clark each gave an opening statement and then were questioned by the hearing officers.
“I’m here today to try to set the record straight based on facts and not on a narrative being advanced to attack my good name,” Green said. She told the hearing officers that a conspiracy was being promulgated by former commission employees who are suing the commission.
At 90 minutes, Green, who has been on the board since 2002, spoke longest and answered numerous questions from the hearing officers and told them how race played into controversies that enveloped the recreation commission.
“They did not like me as a person, and they did not like African-Americans,” she said, describing one attempt by political opponents to oust her as commission chair.
Mickens, who has been on the commission since 2008, told the hearing officers said she was saddened by false allegations, adding, “I’m here to clear my good name.”
Charges against the commissioners involve numerous allegations of mismanagement, ignoring nepotism and employee complaints about sexual harassment at the commission that led to a hostile work environment for many of its employees, according to allegations in legal documents.
Earlier this year, the commissioners’ longtime executive director, James A. Brown III, was indicted by a Richland County grand jury on charges of misconduct in office. The indictment alleged a pattern of sexual harassment of employees who worked for him.
One complaint against the commissioners was that they had given Brown a huge raise, making his salary $151,800, at a time when they knew about but chose to ignore that he was the subject of numerous sexual harassment complaints.
Hearing officer Williams asked Green about another complaint – that numerous family members of top people at the commission worked there. Telling Green that Brown had a son, a brother and four nieces working at the Recreation Commission he asked, “Did anyone see any problem with that?”
“No one,” replied Green. “No one even suggested anything about it.”
Green also said there was nothing wrong about her having four members of her family employed at the commission. “They had the right to work, just like anybody else has the right to work.”
Under state law, lawmakers who represent Richland County at the State House recommend appointments to the Recreation Commission board, and the governor makes the formal appointment. A majority of the Richland legislative delegation in October asked Haley to remove all but Lewis and Clark from office.
Clark, who was appointed to the board in February, said he respected the governor’s authority to fire the entire board, but asked her to note that he is a recent appointee and was not involved in nearly all the controversies. With his long background in youth sports and activities, he said, he has a lot to offer as a board member.
After Wednesday’s session, Haley’s hearing officers said they will make recommendations to the governor, who will make the final decision on whether the remaining board members should stay or go. They had no timetable for a decision.