Richland council control of recreation agency is ‘best of two evils’

Richland County’s embattled recreation agency finally might fall under the control of County Council now that the last opponents of that move say they have had enough of recreation leaders.

“Yeah, I think the County Council is the best of the two evils,” said State House Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland.

What’s the second evil?

“The Richland County Recreation Commission” controlling itself, the veteran lawmaker said Wednesday of the board that oversees the county’s parks and recreation facilities.

State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, has filed a bill that, if it becomes law, would clear the way for the long-sought transfer of the power to appoint and remove commissioners to locally elected County Council members from the legislative delegation and the governor.

“I was one of the ones that has held out on ... turning it over to the county,” Jackson said. “The time has come to turn it over and let them run it.”

Jackson and Howard said the final straw was the commission’s decision last month to not accept any of three finalists to become the agency’s director. Instead, commissioners decided to start again, this time by doing a national search for a successor to James Brown III.

The embattled Brown resigned a year ago and, subsequently, was charged with misconduct and threatening a witness.

“Now, they’ve decided to go out and spend money to hire a search firm,” Jackson said. “That is mind-blowing to me.”

One of the three finalists was John Mark Thompson, chief operating officer at Bible Way Church where Jackson is pastor. Jackson said his bill is not a result of Thompson not being selected.

“If they had gone with any of them, I would not have filed the bill,” he said of what he considers the commission wasting time and money in hiring a director.

Howard said he continues to get complaints from residents about the operation of the recreation agency.

One neighborhood president told Howard his group was blocked from meeting in an agency building that it has used for years. Others have complained of waiting in the rain for facilities to open, Howard said.

A previous attempt to shift control of the Recreation Commission to County Council, through what’s called “special legislation,” failed. The General Assembly adopted special legislation, affecting only Richland County, to shift control on the agency, but the commission successfully challenged the law’s legality in court.

Richland County Council chairwoman Joyce Dickerson said she’s aware of Jackson’s proposal but has not decided whether to support it.

Jackson proposes a statewide law granting all legislative delegations the option of turning recreation commissions over to county councils by transferring their appointment and removal powers.

State Rep. James Smith, D-Richland and a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor, said he supports Jackson’s bill, which is similar to others already in the legislative hopper. Smith has been outspoken in seeking to transfer the rec agency to County Council, which pays the salaries of commission employees though it cannot name or fire commissioners.

The support of Jackson and Howard is likely to help win approval, Smith said. But it’s too early to predict that lawmakers statewide will get behind the bill.

If adopted, Jackson’s bill would allow County Council to remove the rec commission’s current members even though almost all were appointed this year, the senator said. “I did not include a grandfather clause,” language that would keep current commissioners in place while the changes were enacted.

Smith, who chairs Richland County’s legislative delegation, is happy to keep the current commissioners .

“I know the members that we’ve appointed,” Smith said, “I’m comfortable with the current members.”