At least five members of Richland County’s legislative delegation want the elections office to start over in selecting an elections director, saying the whole process – from Election Day forward – has failed to recapture the public’s trust.
Hiring the last man standing after two of the three finalists dropped out is no way to fix voters’ distrust after last fall’s debacle of an election, they said this week.
“I don’t think it’s too late to try to fix a process that was so utterly in disarray as that election,” Rep. Joe McEachern, D-Richland, said.
The delegation can only advise the county board about who to hire. The law the delegation pushed through the Legislature in 2010 to merge the county’s elections and voter registration offices does not grant the delegation the power to force the elections office to act.
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Howard Jackson, Orangeburg County’s director of elections, has been offered the job. But he does not yet have a start date, and a salary has not been finalized. Also, election board members have said they are still negotiating with him on issues. Those include whether he must quit some of his current jobs and whether he will have to move to Richland County, state lawmakers said.
Of the 17 people on the delegation, Reps. McEachern, Mia McLeod, Todd Rutherford, James Smith – all Democrats – and John Courson, a Senate Republican, said they support a do-over to the selection of Jackson to replace embattled Lillian McBride, who was demoted from the director’s job but remains in the elections office.
Jackson failed to disclose to the search committee that he was investigated in 2008 by SLED during a voting irregularities probe in Orangeburg, The State newspaper reported. He was cleared. Jackson also holds three jobs – two of them full-time –and works 93 hours per week, The State reported last week using county and federal records filed by Jackson.
A handful of delegation members also are arguing that the elections board member who led the selection process, Herbert Sims, did so after his interim appointment to the board had expired. That would raise even more questions about the selection process.
The delegation is tentatively scheduled to hold its first meeting of 2013 on Tuesday, during which critics on the delegation hope to raise their concerns. A final decision on the long-sought meeting is up to Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, who chairs the delegation. Telephone messages left for Jackson on Thursday and Friday were not answered.
The five-member contingent on the delegation said their opposition is not to Jackson, who has said he is not related to senator Jackson, but to a flawed process that has not been fixed.
“The finale would be hiring Mr. Jackson and having a repeat (of November’s election) because we have issues that have never been resolved,” said McLeod, one of the most vocal critics of the Election Day fiasco and the election board’s decisions in replacing McBride. McBride was blamed for voting delays that stretched to seven hours and untold numbers of voters who gave up, largely because her office used too few voting machines, in violation of state law. The election is widely considered one of the state’s most bungled in modern history.
It’s unclear whether the small contingent of the delegation will formally propose a do-over or whether they have the votes to win. Voting on the delegation is weighted, meaning votes from senators carry more weight than House members. And votes from House and Senate members whose districts are largely in adjoining counties carry less weight.
“It’s frustrating. It’s a sense of powerlessness,” Smith said. “This train just can’t seem to get on the tracks, and that’s important for public confidence (in properly run elections).”
Reps. Joe Neal, D-Richland, and Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, said they need more information before taking a public position. Other members could not be reached.
Rep. Jimmy Bales, D-Richland, and a member of the elections director search committee, has reversed his opposition to Howard Jackson.
After saying Jackson should be disqualified for not telling the search panel of the investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division, Bales said this week Jackson should be given a chance to right the elections office. “After I thought about it, I think he can do the job,” Bales said.
Bales questioned whether it would be legal to reopen a job opening after someone has been offered the post.
Finlay questioned whether the delegation can act if Jackson has an employment contract.
County administrator Tony McDonald and the county’s personnel director, Dwight Hanna, said Friday they are unaware of any contract for Jackson. McBride was a county employee and did not have a contract, McDonald said. “I have heard nothing different with regard to the incoming director,” he said.
McLeod has been vocal in challenging McBride’s explanation of what went wrong and of the elections board that oversaw the voting and the selection of McBride’s successor.
McLeod said she was on the delegation appointments committee that in December nominated Sims to fill the remainder of Tina Herbert’s two-year term. Herbert resigned from the board a month before the election. McLeod is adamant that Sims was to serve only through March 15, 2013, the end of Herbert’s term.
Courson, who also voted on filling that seat, agrees with McLeod. “I can’t imagine that you would fill an unexpired term and then add a full term on top of that,” the leader of the state Senate said.
But others on the delegation argue Sims was to complete that term and go on to serve a four-year term.
Sims could not be reached Friday.
Bales said the minutes of the meeting where the Sims vote was taken contain a typographical error that Bales plans to fix at the next delegation meeting.
“The secretary made a typographical mistake,” Bales said. “We’re going to repair that.”
That does not satisfy McLeod.
“You can’t restore the public’s trust in a process that’s not fair, not open and (where) no one’s accountable,” she said.
The three finalists for Richland’s director job withheld information, The State reports
HIRED BY DEFAULT?
Two of the three drop out, and the board offers the job to the third, Howard Jackson
HIRED OR NOT?
The board is still negotiating a salary, a start date, a move to Columbia, hours required to do the job
FILLING ANOTHER SEAT ON THE BOARD
A Richland elections board seat – the fifth one – has remained open since December, when chairwoman Liz Crum resigned in protest after the board would not fire Lillian McBride.
The seat will be filled by the county’s legislative delegation.
Three finalists have been selected, James Brown, the legislative delegation’s director, said Friday.
They are: Frances Levin, Samuel J. Selph and voting machines analyst Duncan Buell. They were selected from among 42 applicants, including holdovers from those who sought the seat the delegation gave to Herbert Sims on Dec. 6.
If you go
The tentative plan for the first meeting this year of the Richland County Legislative Delegation is for lawmakers to gather Tuesday in a Senate office building.
When: 11 a.m.
Where: Room 207 of the Gressette office building on the State House grounds