Wilson off Columbia ballot; Williams stays on

The Columbia Municipal Election Commission ruled Friday during an emergency meeting that Irwin Wilson will not be on the ballot for mayor in April's city elections.

The commission disqualified Wilson because of a state law that does not allow convicted felons to run for public office until 15 years after they finish serving a sentence.

Wilson, a minister and contractor, was convicted in 1994 of third-degree criminal sexual conduct. He finished his prison sentence 13 years ago.

The commission also decided that Antonio Williams, a candidate for an at-large council seat, is eligible. Williams was convicted in 1990 of grand larceny and third-degree burglary and served out his sentence in 1993.

Friday's meeting was unusual and hastily called.

Typically, the commission only meets every two years - just before and directly after city elections.

But a decision on the candidates' qualifications had to be made Friday, because ballots for the April 6 election will be printed Monday.

The two candidates' criminal records came to light after The State conducted S.C. State Law Enforcement Division background checks on all 17 candidates who signed up to run in city races.

All three commissioners voted Friday to remove Wilson from the ballot and to allow Williams, who is running against Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine and Five Points businessman Grant Robertson, to remain.

It was the first time anyone could recall a candidate being struck from the ballot because of a felony conviction.

Neither Wilson nor Williams attended the meeting.

The commission will send letters to the candidates notifying them of the decision, said chairman Byron Gipson.

Wilson learned of his disqualification Friday after being called by The State newspaper. He said the commission was prejudiced against him and he was not being treated fairly.

Wilson said no one had contacted him to inform him that his eligibility to run was on the agenda. However, there had been news reports, including an article in The State Friday, noting the topic of the meeting.

Wilson also questioned whether the state law should apply in his case. The law was added to the constitution in 1997, three years after his conviction.

But commissioners said there is no doubt Wilson must be disqualified.

"It's clear, but we wanted to review it to make sure we were completely fair," Gipson said.

A 1997 amendment to the state constitution also said the completion of a sentence includes parole and probation time.

Both Wilson and Williams are eligible to vote. A convicted felon can register to vote as soon as the sentence is completed, said Mike Cinnamon, Richland County's elections director.

The election commission meeting was called Thursday, after Cinnamon raised questions about the candidates' eligibility.

The Municipal Election Commission makes rules about city elections, but the county staff actually runs them.

Friday's meeting was the commission's first since the April 2008 city elections, said city clerk Erika Salley.

And, two of the three commissioners are new.

Gipson and Hamilton Osborne Jr., a former city councilman, were appointed Wednesday to the commission. Janice Surginer is the third member; she was appointed in January 2008.

Friday's meeting lasted less than an hour but commissioners spent most of it in closed session, citing attorney/client privileges.

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