Richland Council agrees to pay $100K in election-related lawyers’ fees

Richland County Council finally agreed Tuesday to pay more than $100,000 in bills for the lawyers who cleaned up the county’s November election mess.

But not until after some unusual procedural moves, a change of heart by two members and the chairman’s threat to enforce a time limit for Councilman Bill Malinowski as he questioned charges for travel and telephone conversations.

The council, which had put off the decision twice before, agreed to pay $72,423.10 for lawyer Steve Hamm to investigate Election Day problems and recommend how to fix them; $9,348.75 for lawyer John Nichols, who represented demoted elections director Lillian McBride; and $17,924.20 for Helen McFadden, who kept the election results from being overturned in court.

“Who didn’t have a lawyer?” Councilman Greg Pearce muttered at one point.

Pearce was one of four members who voted against covering the $101,563.30, though others argued the county had entered into contracts with the law firms and would just end up getting sued if they didn’t agree to pay up.

Pearce was joined by Malinowski, Seth Rose and Torrey Rush.

Rose said later McBride should have paid her own legal bills.

“For me, it’s not about analyzing the bills inside and out,” Rose said. “For me, it is the Richland County taxpayer should not pay for someone’s personal attorney.”

At an earlier meeting, council members had asked their lawyer, Brad Farrar, to go through all 46 pages of invoices to make sure the county did not pay for anything it shouldn’t.

The bills included a charge of more than $1,800 for the work of a statistician.

Farrar identified a $112.50 charge for a 30-minute conversation between McBride and Nichols about a “resignation statement.” Nichols volunteered to strike the charge from his bill.

The council’s agreement to balance the books for its legal department signaled the end of an election fiasco considered one of the biggest election disasters in state history because of waits of up to seven hours to vote.

New elections director Howard Jackson started work last week; he was in the audience for at least part of Tuesday’s meeting. And Hamm delivered his final report to the election board, whose members he chastised for being poor supervisors.

As the evening began, it wasn’t clear the council was ready to wrap up anything, however.

The first decision on the issue was not to pay the bills, 6-4.

Chairman Kelvin Washington warned his colleagues: “Either we’re going to pay it now, or we’re going to get sued and have to pay more.”

Pearce asked for a vote to reconsider.

Members Joyce Dickerson and Julie-Ann Dixon switched their votes from “no” to “yes,” making it 6-4 the other way. Councilman Jim Manning was absent.