Suit asks embattled rec board to report to Richland council

The recreation commission’s headquarters are on Parklane Road in Northeast Columbia.
The recreation commission’s headquarters are on Parklane Road in Northeast Columbia. FILE PHOTOGRAPH

A lawsuit filed Wednesday seeks to wrench control of the embattled Richland County Recreation Commission and hand it to County Council – a tall order, legally.

If successful, the suit would set a precedent for some 50 “special purpose districts” across South Carolina that, like the Recreation Commission, are supported with taxes but are not elected by voters.

In Richland County, the owner of a home with a taxable value of $100,000 pays $20 a year for the commission and its services.

“The precedent we’re trying to set is that unelected special purpose districts would have to fall under local, elected governance in order to receive local taxpayer money,” said John Schmidt, one of the lawyers who filed the case on behalf of anti-tax activist Don Weaver.

The county’s Recreation Commission, appointed by the governor, has been racked by allegations of corruption, nepotism, creating a hostile workplace and resisting accountability. Six of the commission’s seven members either resigned or were fired by then-Gov. Nikki Haley.

Weaver wants County Council to have the power to appoint members of the commission. If the courts agree, council also would gain control of the commission’s budget.

“This is kind of a statewide problem,” said Weaver, a Republican Party activist and onetime candidate for County Council. “The (Richland County) Recreation Commission just brought this to a head. They’re like the poster child for what’s wrong with SPDs (special purpose districts).”

The suit, filed in Richland County Circuit Court, likely is headed to the state Supreme Court, an expensive legal challenge.

This is Weaver’s second suit against the commission.

The first, decided in 1997 by the high court, gave Weaver a partial victory but allowed the Legislature time to vote on funding for each such district. The General Assembly then passed a law that in Richland County set the tax at five mills, which translates into $20 on a home with a taxable value of $100,000.

“You’ve got ... representatives from the coast voting on our Recreation Commission,” said Schmidt, a Columbia lawyer. “That doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

The new suit seeks ultimately to have the high court decide whether special purpose districts like Richland’s Recreation Commission are illegal because they violate: the 1975 Home Rule Act, taxation without representation or because their funding mechanism is illegal.

Schmidt and co-counsel Melissa Copeland, who represented Weaver in his first suit, say the Home Rule argument is the strongest. Home Rule took control of county agencies away from the Legislature by giving local, elected governments the power to tax for services.

But John DeLoache, senior staff attorney at the S.C. Association of Counties, said the weakness in the Home Rule argument is the Recreation Commission was created by the Legislature before Home Rule was adopted.

The suit asks judges to change years of rulings and to settle who controls local governments. DeLoache said that “is a question that’s sort of been hanging since 1975.”

State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, explains why he thinks five Recreation Commission board members should resign.

State Rep. Mia McLeod explains her call for the resignation of the Recreation Commission's director, five of its board members "who support him."