IF EVER THERE was a case where a governor needed to break the taboo against meddling in local legislators’ prerogatives, the Richland County Recreation Commission was it.
Unlike the Richland County Election Commission four years earlier, this wasn’t incompetence, and it apparently wasn’t going to be resolved by local legislators, a large minority of whom did not believe there was a problem to be resolved.
This was a case of a commission that looked the other way — and even applauded — while its director possibly violated state law and certainly terrorized employees. What little has become public shows that James Brown III browbeat, intimidated and threatened employees wholesale. And those who have seen it say an investigation that the commission authorized and then squelched documented some of the grossest sexual harassment you could imagine.
Read the governor’s order
So it’s certainly good for everyone in Richland County — and especially for the current and former employees who were not close friends and relatives of Mr. Brown — that Gov. Nikki Haley notified the commissioners that she will remove them if they do not show up for a public hearing Nov. 30 and convince her they should stay.
The governor, who technically appoints the commissioners but by tradition rubber stamps the recommendations of the county legislative delegation, is the only person empowered to remove them, and then only for malfeasance, incompetency, neglect of duty or similar reasons.
In her letter to the commissioners, Gov. Haley cited one cause that’s clear-cut: Board members negligently ignored complaints about nepotism that violated agency policy (as well as state law). She cited one cause — malfeasance for failing to investigate claims of harassment — that, as far as I can tell, the commissioners could only refute by citing that squelched investigation; that would be the investigation they refused to turn over to the governor — in violation of state law. She also cited what looks like more of a political point than a legal cause — neglect of duty for overpaying Mr. Brown.
But the law requires only that the governor find to her satisfaction that the board members are guilty of one of those causes. So while commissioners could appeal their removal and drag this out in the courts, it seems pretty clear that they’re on their way out of office.
So what’s next?
On the local level, Richland County legislators must now recommend new commissioners for the governor to appoint, and the nine legislators who have been trying to clean up the place (the 10th, Joel Lourie, ceased to be a senator when his term ended this week) need to call the shots rather than deferring to the seven legislators who have been defending Mr. Brown and his commissioner-enablers.
They also need to administer a litmus test to potential commissioners: Will you vote immediately to make the investigation into Mr. Brown’s conduct public? Anyone who says no should be rejected.
The pro-Brown contingent no doubt will be horrified by this suggestion, since that report could be extremely damaging to the agency in the many lawsuits former employes have filed against it. But if the investigation found evidence that supports the lawsuits, that’s all the more reason it should be released — and the agency should admit wrongdoing and seek to settle those suits. Remember: The obligation of a government agency is not to win lawsuits; it is to serve the public interest — and admit when it has violated the public interest.
But this isn’t merely about Richland County. The taboo the governor broke applies to thousands of appointments she rubber stamps for county election commissions, magistrate positions and boards running hundreds of these special-purpose districts.
In her notice to the commissioners, Gov. Haley said she had urged Richland lawmakers to give removal power to “local officials.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple: Richland County’s legislators tried once to turn control of the commission over to the County Council, and the commissioners sued them … and won.
The Supreme Court’s logic is too convoluted to go into here, but the result is that the only way to abolish or change control of a special-purpose district is to abolish or change all of them. And legislators in the rest of the state haven’t been interested in giving up what they perceive as power over the districts.
But that could change now, in one of three ways. Legislators might see this as a portent that governors will start meddling in what they consider their prerogatives, which makes them really nervous. Or they could recognize just how difficult it is to get rid of rogue board members. Better still, they could finally realize that it makes no sense for them to appoint members of special little governments — or even to have special little governments — now that we have county councils to do the work those special little governments were created to do.
I don’t care what motivates them; they just need to be motivated. Maintaining single-county special purpose districts has been a bad idea since county councils were created nearly a half-century ago. The Richland County Recreation Commission has reminded us that it’s a dangerous idea as well.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.