Politics & Government

After Columbia housing deaths, lawmakers eye bill allowing them to sack commission

Residents evacuating from Allen Benedict Court after gas leak killed 2

Public safety officials are posting evacuation notices on Allen Benedict Court units after a gas leak left 2 dead. Mayor Steve Benjamin addresses the media in a press conference.
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Public safety officials are posting evacuation notices on Allen Benedict Court units after a gas leak left 2 dead. Mayor Steve Benjamin addresses the media in a press conference.

A Democratic state senator from Columbia says lawmakers should have the authority to remove public housing commissioners when living conditions are hazardous or, worse, lead to a resident’s death.

State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, has proposed a bill that would allow state lawmakers to suspend local housing authority commissioners, removing them from office while an investigation can take place, if “there is convincing evidence” of hazardous living conditions or if those conditions lead to the death of residents.

Jackson’s legislation, which a panel of senators will discuss Wednesday, comes in the wake of the January deaths of two residents of Allen Benedict Court, owned and operated by the Columbia Housing Authority. The aging public housing complex located off of Harden Street is in Jackson’s district.

Calvin Witherspoon Jr., 61, and Derrick Caldwell Roper, 30, were found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in their separate apartments inside the housing complex.

An inspection of the complex immediately following the deaths found hazardous carbon monoxide levels in multiple buildings. Authorities evacuated and condemned the complex, leaving more than 400 people in transitional homes for a time.

The deaths have led to resignations of some Columbia Housing Authority board members and to the long-time director’s retirement announcement.

Jackson’s bill would give state lawmakers who represent a housing authority’s home county the power to force leadership changes on the board of directors.

If evidence points to hazardous conditions, including those that lead to a death, lawmakers can declare a state of emergency, suspending commissioners for 90 days during an investigation. The city council, which in Columbia’s case appoints the Columbia Housing Authority’s members, would conduct the investigation.

The city’s mayor, or his or her designee, would then assume the powers of the housing authority, according to the bill.

If city council members determine that the housing authority was negligent or responsible for allowing hazardous or deadly housing conditions, commissioners would immediately be removed from office. City council would be responsible for appointing new commissioners.

“It creates an avenue (for changing leadership) in case something severe happens,” said Jackson of his bill, which he said is “similar to what the governor just did with the (Richland County) election commission.”

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster last month fired the entire Richland County elections board, three months after the agency failed to count more than 1,000 votes in the 2018 election and a day after a tense board meeting that highlighted the agency’s dysfunction.

Columbia City Council members recently appointed four new members to the seven-member housing commission, two who voluntarily stepped down and two who had terms that expired. One commissioner wrote in a resignation letter to Columbia city council members that the commission was “not being given the information it has needed to carry out its governance duties.”

Longtime Housing Authority Director Gilbert Walker announced last month he will retire in June.

Columbia City Councilman Moe Baddourah, who pressed Walker to step down, told The State, “(g)iven the numerous, serious failings of the Housing Authority, new leadership is badly needed.”

As for Jackson’s bill, Baddourah called it “a good step” toward potentially preventing a similar tragedy.

Baddourah, however, said he wants to hear more discussion about the bill, which will be discussed Wednesday during a Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry subcommittee meeting.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and Housing Authority Commission Chairman Bobby Gist could not immediately be reached for comment.

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.