Race, shouting and a sheriff's deputy: How this Richland County meeting lost control

The Richland County elections board meeting went smoothly for nearly an hour last Wednesday before the shouting began, security was called in and a racial comment was made.

A verbal dispute that spilled over from the board's closed-door session into the public meeting left commissioner Jane Emerson feeling threatened to the point that she asked for a sheriff's deputy to come into the chambers and escort her to her car.

"I don't scare easy," Emerson said Monday. "But that was scary."

Shirley Mack, the board member whose behavior prompted Emerson's call for security, dismissed the incident as "drama" and said Emerson overreacted.

The dispute revolved around notes from a comments box, which recently was placed in the elections office for staff members to leave anonymous comments about the operations of the office. Mack and other board members said it had been Mack's suggestion to put the staff comment box in the office.

After a closed-door session in which several notes were read by commission members, Emerson put the notes in her pocketbook — until the commission decided collectively what they would do with them, she said. Mack, however, demanded that she should have the notes.

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An audio recording of the meeting relays Mack's repeated demands of "Give me the papers" and "Give it to me," delivered in raised voice.

"Nobody took time and wanted this idea but me," Mack said in the meeting. "But now she thinks because she is vice chair she can just stick it in her pocket and run because she does not want it discussed. ... I don't have time for Ms. Emerson. All I'm asking is, I started it, you didn't have no input in it, so give us the papers."

Emerson told The State that Mack left her seat multiple times and walked over to Emerson. Mack's hovering was perceived threateningly by Emerson.

Mack did not touch Emerson or verbally threaten her, Emerson said. But Emerson said she felt threatened enough that she asked for a sheriff's deputy to be brought in the room.

In response, Mack said, "Call it. Please. Call the security so he can see how stupid you are."

A Richland County sheriff's deputy was called into the meeting room, and the papers in question were handed over to him. The deputy then handed the papers to board chairwoman Adell Adams, who said she would put them in a sealed envelope until the board decided what to do with them.

As the meeting wound down and board members prepared to leave the building, Emerson can be heard on the audio recording asking the deputy to stay in the room.

At that request, Mack said, "She must be scared blacks will beat her up. ... You got to have security walk you to the car? Are you ridiculous?"

The audio recording ends after that comment.

Emerson said she filed an incident report with the Columbia Police Department on her way home from the meeting.

"Here's why it made me feel scared," Emerson told The State. "It's been building from the very first board meeting she attended ... but it has escalated. ... This has seemed to breach all county board conduct."

When asked Monday about her comments at last week's meeting, Mack said, "When I see stupidity, sometimes I may overreact."

Adams, the board's chairwoman, said last Wednesday's behavior was not unusual for Mack.

"Ms. Mack just has a problem," Adams said. "Ms. Mack overreacts a lot of times, and we just try to go on with our business. She doesn't speak for the board. She speaks for herself."

Another board member said he felt Mack behaved inappropriately in the situation.

"I was not surprised to see the action, because the person that caused the problem is a bully," board member Peter Kennedy told The State. "It was uncalled for, it was undignified, and it was unprofessional."

"I'm not a bully," Mack said. "I'm an advocate for not sweeping things under the rug when we know it's wrong."

Kennedy said he hopes the Richland County legislative delegation or Gov. Henry McMaster will review the incident and consider "whether to retain (Mack) on the board or not, because she's not contributing to what we're trying to do."

Election board members are nominated by the legislative delegation and appointed by the governor.

Several state representatives from Richland County said they had not heard of the incident before being told Monday by a reporter.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, was not aware of the dispute between Mack and Emerson but said that "the delegation will pay attention."

"If, in the future, it is clear that someone is not participating and someone is not playing fair with others, then we'll do something about it," Rutherford said. "If there's a problem, we will fix it."