Editorial: Richland elections director search reminds why we need reform

04/26/2013 12:00 AM

04/25/2013 5:54 PM

WITH PUBLIC trust of elections officials and the voting process in Richland County at an all-time low, you’d think the Board of Elections and Voter Registration would ensure that the search for a new director goes as smoothly, lawfully and openly as possible.

You’d be wrong. There was tension from the start, when search committee chairman Herbert Sims barred fellow elections board member Elaine DuBose and acting elections director Jasper Salmond from discussions about candidates.

Up until now, we had only winced at those peculiar decisions, chalking them up to board politics. But with its decision Wednesday to trample upon the people’s right to know by withholding names of finalists for the job, the search panel — and by virtue, the hiring process — seems to be assuming the personality of the ill-fated system supporting the Board of Elections and the office it oversees.

On Wednesday, the committee narrowed the field of candidates to three finalists but refused to release the names as required by law. Initially, committee members said the Richland County attorney had advised them not to share the names without the permission of the job candidates, but on Thursday at least one panel member said she was misled by the committee’s chairman. Why are we not surprised about the confusion?

Whatever the reasoning, the committee erred in not releasing the names. People who apply for a public job should know in advance that their names will be revealed if they become a finalist. Public officials should make that clear.

State law requires public bodies to reveal the names of “not fewer than the final three applicants” before anyone is hired. While a committee rather than the full board was conducting the director’s search, the requirement in state law doesn’t stop at the official board but also applies to “committees, subcommittees, advisory committees, and the like of any such body.” Although the names of the three finalists quickly trickled out as the press pushed for openness, they should have been formally announced.

The intent of the law is to let the public know who’s in the running while it’s still possible that any of the finalists could land the job. That allows for public comment, scrutiny and reflection.

Quite frankly, the Board of Elections needs — and should desire — public reaction to those who could potentially become director of elections and voter registration. Lest we forget, it was a closed-door deal on the part of the county’s legislative delegation that led to former director Lillian McBride being chosen, with no real opposition. Ms. McBride would oversee what has become known as the worst election fiasco in this county and perhaps in the modern history of the state.

As a result, the next director’s job will include more than overseeing daily operations, personnel, budgetary matters, elections and voter registration. The person in that role also will have the task of repairing and restoring the public’s confidence in the office and the voting process, a task that would only be more difficult if the Board of Elections further angers the public by mishandling this hiring process.

Ultimately, this is just another reminder of the dysfunctional nature of the archaic system that allows state legislators to meddle in the election process in their home counties, leaving duly elected county council members and the professionals at the State Election Commission powerless. The sooner legislators remove themselves from this process and turn this responsibility over to the State Election Commission, the better.

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