May 10, 2013

Editorial: Richland Elections Board should launch new search for director

WITH ITS SEARCH for a new director falling apart, the Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration should scrap the process and start anew.

WITH ITS SEARCH for a new director falling apart, the Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration should scrap the process and start anew.

That would cause an unfortunate delay in hiring a new elections chief to clean up the mess left after the Nov. 6 election debacle and may increase the cost of the search, but it is critical that the panel does its due diligence in the hunt for a credible, capable person to oversee this office.

The current process is in a tailspin. Two of three finalists for the job dropped out after The State discovered undisclosed issues in all their work histories. We are deeply troubled by the fact that the three candidates didn’t reveal these matters themselves — and even more troubled that the search committee didn’t discover them.

Factor in other problems that have accompanied this process, and it’s clear that the search panel either wasn’t getting adequate legal and professional guidance or wasn’t equipped for this task — or both.

Quite frankly, this search was in trouble from the start. The Board of Elections has no experience hiring an executive to run elections. Lillian McBride, an inexperienced director who led the office just long enough to produce one of the most mangled elections in modern S.C. history, was hired by county legislators. Prior to that, Mike Cinnamon, nudged out after the elections and voter registration offices were merged two years ago, had overseen elections for nearly 40 years.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that the board lacks experience in making such a hire, it placed its newest member — he was appointed just months ago — in charge of the search committee. There was tension from the beginning. Search committee chairman Herbert Sims barred fellow elections board member Elaine DuBose and acting elections director Jasper Salmond from discussions about candidates. Once the committee identified three finalists, it refused to release the names as required by law. There was confusion over whether the Richland County attorney had advised the panel not to share the names without the permission of the job candidates or whether Mr. Sims had misinterpreted the advice.

But the search committee’s biggest and most inexcusable gaffe was its failure to thoroughly review candidates’ backgrounds. After the names of the three finalists were revealed — no thanks to the search committee — The State discovered issues that raised questions about all three.

The newspaper learned that Adam Ragan, director of elections in Gaston County, N.C., lacks the certification to conduct elections in North Carolina and that Patricia Jefferson, director of Sumter County’s election office, is not certified by the state to hold elections because she has failed to take the necessary classes. The third finalist, Howard Jackson, director of Orangeburg County’s election office, was investigated in 2008 for election-law violations involving alleged absentee ballot irregularities, according to records from the State Law Enforcement Division. SLED found no wrongdoing.

The fact that these issues were unearthed by The State rather than through the due diligence of the search committee illustrates yet another reason why it’s so important for local governments to follow the law and reveal the names of job finalists. The media and the public play key roles in vetting candidates wishing to be employed by taxpayers.

The Richland County Board of Elections must not botch this search if it intends to rebuild public trust and confidence lost as a result of the Nov. 6 election fiasco that forced many to stand in lines for hours and others to leave without casting ballots. Board members should hit the reset button and restart their search.

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