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Richland County sued over $1 million payment to fired administrator Seals

Council confusion: Richland County struggles to pass million dollar settlement for Gerald Seals

Richland County Council chair Joyce Dickerson labors to pass a million dollar settlement for fired County Commissioner Gerald Seals after an executive session.
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Richland County Council chair Joyce Dickerson labors to pass a million dollar settlement for fired County Commissioner Gerald Seals after an executive session.

Richland County Council is being sued over its recent $1 million payment to former county administrator Gerald Seals.

That settlement was reached last month, in part, to avoid a legal fight between Seals and the county, multiple County Council members have said. Now, it will give way to a legal battle among the county, Seals and a private resident, who says the amount of money paid is excessive and was improperly approved.

County resident William Coggins is suing both Seals and County Council over the $1 million settlement. The lawsuit was filed Wednesday by Columbia attorney Joe McCulloch, representing Coggins, in Richland County common pleas court.

"We all just want answers as to how this could happen," Coggins told The State. "I don't want money. ... This is all about getting information. Why would they have done this? Why did he get paid so much money when I don't think he was entitled to it?"

Council Chairwoman Joyce Dickerson could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

Coggins is asking the court to issue a judgment canceling the settlement. Coggins also asks the court to order Seals to return the settlement money to the county and to prohibit Seals from spending any of the money until the matter is resolved.

The settlement money already has been paid to Seals, county officials have said in public meetings.

Coggins' lawsuit contends County Council acted outside of proper procedures in approving the settlement on May 14. The public was not properly notified that the vote would be taken, and the vote was done outside of proper procedures, meaning the approval of the settlement should be nullified, the suit argues.

Further, an excessive amount was paid to Seals, and taxpayers and the public deserve a full explanation of why a settlement of this size was agreed to, the lawsuit says.

"The pressures of escalating county fees, taxes and costs for services require our Council to be good stewards of our county checkbook and more willing to explain its actions to the taxpayers," McCulloch said in a statement to The State. "Sadly, our Council has declined to explain the reasons for this extraordinary settlement, thus requiring this lawsuit."

Seals' dismissal has been controversial from council's narrow vote to fire him April 3. Council members later cited a lack of transparency, acting without council approval, high staff turnover and sleeping on the job as reasons for Seals' firing.

Seals contended he was illegally fired and also said some council members were retaliating against him for ethical issues he had raised to council.

After determining it didn't follow state law in firing Seals, a majority of council later voted to suspend him with pay and indicated it still planned to fire him.

On May 14, council approved a settlement worth more than $1 million to be paid to Seals. It included his $184,000 one-year salary, six months' health insurance and an $800,000 cash payout.

Additional details of the settlement have not been made public. The State newspaper has requested a copy of the settlement from the county through the S.C. Freedom of Information Act but has not received the document.

Multiple council members told The State the settlement was being paid to protect the county and individual council members from potential lawsuits Seals could bring.

If that is so, and the settlement reveals such, then a vote by any council member to protect themselves individually from being sued would be "a conflict of interest and improper use of position," Coggins' lawsuit argues, "further rendering the vote in approval of settlement improper, if not illegal, but in any event invalid and a nullity."

McCulloch said he and Coggins want to know details that include what legal threats Seals may have made against the county "that resulted in the rush to settlement and subsequent refusal to explain."

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