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Who’s responsible for Richland County election office legal bills?

tdominick@thestate.com

Richland County’s election board and County Council are locked in a fiscal war over who’s responsible for defending the board in court and for hefty legal fees that follow.

In September, County Council begrudgingly paid a $38,740 overdue judgment for an attorney’s fee in a lawsuit filed by an Upstate public advocacy group against the board and its members. One member learned that, because of the legal bill, there was a lien on her property when she sought to refinance her home. Another commissioner has sued over the dispute.

“It is the most acrimonious relationship between an election board and a county council in the state,” said Peter Kennedy, one of the volunteers appointed to the five-member Richland County Elections & Voter Registration board.

The county attorney’s office and other county officials have said the county attorney’s office will not represent the board or its members because the county does not have authority over appointments or the board itself. Board members are nominated by the county’s legislative delegation and appointed by the governor. Yet the county must provide the money to operate the office and its responsibilities to run elections and maintain voter registration records.

When council voted to pay the nearly $39,000 in legal fees, County Administrator Gerald Seals said election officials should not be allowed to “raid” money from other parts of their budget “in order to contrive payment.” Seals also said at the time that paying the bill violates county policies, principles and the law.

Board members, including Chairwoman Adell Adams, disagree. They say the law is on their side and that other counties don’t have to fight their councils for legal protection.

The board has an ally in Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, an attorney who has experience in election lawsuits.

“These officials regularly find themselves dealing with litigation,” Smith said. “If they’re going to be on the hook for ($38,740 in) judgments, why wouldn’t (the county) pay for these volunteer people who are serving on the board? It seems like it’s the responsible thing to do.”

Smith has asked the state attorney general for a legal opinion on Richland County’s situation even though that office issued a clear opinion 19 years ago for McCormick County.

“(W)hether done so by the county attorney or otherwise,” the 1998 opinion states, “McCormick County would be responsible for providing legal representation of the board, as it would any county agency or office.”

Having legal representation would save taxpayers money, Smith said, citing the extra fee paid in the suit by S.C. Public Interest Foundation based in Greenville.

“If the county had paid when the demand was made ... none of this would have happened,” the legislator said. “and it would have cost a lot less.” He is referring to a contempt of court threat that resulted in raising the initial $35,000 pay out to nearly $39,000.

Asked for an accounting of how much the county has paid in insurance protection or legal bills for the elections office, county spokeswoman Beverly Harris provided no figures.

Citing that the county has no oversight authority over the operation of that office, Harris wrote, “(T)he county is not aware of all the legal matters the board may face.”

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