Politics & Government

January 4, 2013

McBride to leave post as Richland county elections chief

Lillian McBride, the embattled Richland County elections director, said Thursday she is stepping down from her $89,124 post effective Jan. 12.

But her employment with the county has not been terminated. She apparently will stay on with the county Elections and Voter Registration Office in a position yet to be determined at a salary to be determined.

Members of the four-member Richland County Election Commission – which oversees McBride’s office – indicated Thursday they considered McBride a strong candidate to again oversee county voter registration, which she did at a salary of $66,429 in 2011 before getting an $18,571 raise to be county elections director, even though she had no experience in such a post.

Conducting a general election in a county like Richland, with 244,000 registered voters at 124 precincts using nearly 1,000 voting machines, is a complicated affair. Other large counties, such as Greenville and Charleston, have elections chiefs who have years of experience as election directors in other counties.

It will be up to a new acting elections director to assign McBride to her new post, commission members said. They did not say whether McBride would keep her $89,124 salary – which is apparently the highest of any county elections director in the state.

The new acting county elections and voter registration director who will assign McBride to her new post will be Jasper Salmond, a former Richland 1 elementary school principal and, for 20 years, a member of the Richland 1 School Board, commission members said.

Salmond, 80, whom officials called “a man with great credibility,” will only stay on the job on a part-time basis until a new, permanent executive director can be found. Until then, Salmond will be paid a rate of $4,500 a month.

In any case, the four-member county elections commission said it will launch an immediate statewide search for a professional, qualified elections director.

McBride, 48, announced her decision to “relinquish my duties and responsibilities and leave my current position” in a one-page letter handed to the election commission by her lawyer, John Nichols, at the start of the panel’s Thursday meeting at the Richland County administration building on Harden Street.

McBride did not use the word “resign” in her letter. Officials said that in the last week, commissioners, members of the Legislative Delegation and Nichols had all been involved in carefully crafting the letter so that McBride could step aside in a way that would diffuse a bitter, two-month-long election controversy but allow her to not be kicked out of a job after 20 years as a county employee. As voter registration chief, she had done a good job, supporters said.

Those same officials also orchestrated Thursday’s events, which took place in quick succession: McBride agreed to step down, Salmond was appointed acting director, and the commission adopted a resolution effectively urging Salmond to reinstate McBride at her old position as voter registration chief.

The four-member commission could have fired McBride on Thursday, but members had made it clear last month they would take no such action. Former commission chair Liz Crum resigned in December after other commission members refused to terminate McBride.

After receiving McBride’s letter, the commission immediately voted to go into an executive session without reading the letter to the public and reporters present. After an hour, commission members came back into public session. Acting commission chairman Allen Dowdy read the letter aloud.

The letter said in part that McBride was glad to have served for a year and a half as county elections chief, but “I have decided it would be difficult for me to continue in that role moving forward. “

She continued, “In taking this action, I accept fully the responsibility for what occurred during the election on Nov. 6, 2012.”

That election, believed to be the most bungled county election in modern state history, was marked by severe voting machine shortages at many of the county’s 124 precincts that led in many cases to waits of more than five hours. An unknown number of people, perhaps more than 1,000, left the lines and didn’t vote because of the long waits. About 200 operable voting machines were inexplicably left in a county warehouse on election day.

In resigning, McBride took a major stop toward ending one of the most contentious political disputes ever to roil Richland County. In the last seven weeks, so many citizens contacted local state lawmakers to complain about McBride’s oversight of the Nov. 6 election that 11 of 16 local state lawmakers in late December finally formally called on McBride to leave her post.

In the first days following the Nov. 6 election, only Richland County Council member Seth Rose publicly said that McBride – who has powerful political backers including U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. – should go. But since then, the public outcry and outrage over McBride’s refusal to leave office has crescendoed to the point where most local lawmakers, under great public pressure to denounce McBride, finally said publicly she must go.

In her letter, McBride also said she would “welcome an opportunity to continue to serve the Elections and Voter Registration Office in some capacity, particularly utilizing my knowledge, experience and skills in voter registration. I offer my continued service to the Office in any manner that the new director or the board sees it.”

Before being appointed county elections chief in 2011 by the Richland County Legislative Delegation at a then-salary of $85,000, McBride was county voter registration director.

In appointing McBride elections chief, the 16 state representatives and senators did not advertise the position or set out qualifications.

McBride had never run a county election before. Her lack of experience contrasted markedly with that of elections directors in other large S.C. counties, such as Greenville and Charleston. Elections directors in those large counties had prior experience in other, smaller counties before being hired for their current posts.

Following Thursday’s meeting, acting county elections commission chairman Dowdy said no firm agreement had been worked out with McBride as to her future salary. The commission will take things “step by step,” Dowdy said.

The commission has made no deal to pay McBride any money for leaving her post, Dowdy said.

Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, who in recent days has been working behind the scenes with other officials to bring the election controversy to a close, said Thursday evening, “I am proud of how Mrs. McBride handled this, with integrity and dignity.”

After the meeting, McBride could not be reached for comment.

But her lawyer, Nichols, said the letter was McBride’s idea. “She came here today of her own volition. I have a great deal of respect for her.”

Nichols said his role over the past weeks has been to “counsel her through these very difficult proceedings.”

McBride’s future will be decided by the board, Nichols said. “She has been given no guarantees,” he said.

After the meeting, Dowdy told a reporter the commission wants to hire the most qualified applicant possible to be county elections chief.

“We are concerned about doing the right thing,” Dowdy said.

At its next meeting, Jan. 9, the board will hear an investigative report by attorney Steve Hamm on what went wrong in the Nov. 6 election. Hamm and another lawyer have been investigating the election mess since just after that election.

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