Editorial: Richland County Council should tighten reins on hiring of outside attorneys

THE CIRCUMSTANCES that led to Richland County Council being forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees resulting from the Nov. 6 election fiasco should compel the elected body to place tighter reins on the county attorney’s hiring of outside counsel.

While there will be unavoidable instances when Richland must rely on outside legal expertise chosen by its county attorney, there should be a transparent process that determines how and under what circumstances those lawyers are chosen and that ensures the council is fully briefed; that should be doubly so when it concerns controversial matters such as the elections mess. Some council members were blindsided by these legal fees, particularly those for the attorney who represented former elections director Lillian McBride.

It’s disturbing that the county attorney would not fully apprise the council before approving such a controversial expenditure — particularly when the money wasn’t available in his office budget and would require an extra appropriation. The council recently agreed to pay $101,563.30 in legal bills, including $9,348.75 for Ms. McBride’s attorney.

Initially, the council declined to pay the bills. But after Chairman Kelvin Washington warned colleagues there was a chance that they would have to pay even more because of possible lawsuits, some members changed their minds, resulting in a 6-4 vote to pay the fees.

Frankly, we don’t think the council should have paid any of the fees, particularly the charges for a lawyer who helped negotiate against the Elections and Voter Registration office to secure a new county job for Ms. McBride. That’s not only outrageous, it is a slap in the face to taxpayers and voters. Ms. McBride should have paid for her own personal legal counsel.

The only reason to spend public money for legal representation for Ms. McBride is if she were sued in her capacity as director. But it’s quite obvious that the lawyer who represented her did far more than that: Attorney John Nichols was quoted in The State as saying his job was “simply to, I think, make sure that the mood of the time did not railroad her.”

Considering the fact that the legal fees resulted from errors caused by elections officials, that office should have felt obligated to dip into its own budget — even if it meant not doing something else — to pay those attorneys who worked to determine what caused the mess and to defend against lawsuits seeking to overturn results. Why should this have come to rest on County Council’s door step? No one under the council’s authority had anything to do with the fiasco that left many voters standing in line for hours to cast ballots and led others to leave before they got a chance to choose.

As the council considered details about the legal fees, Councilman Greg Pearce asked, “Who didn’t have a lawyer?” This bit of sarcasm suggests the council had limited knowledge — or control? — over who was supplied with tax-funded lawyers. But there’s nothing sarcastic about the county having to shell out taxpayer dollars to correct a problem that was not its fault, much less to ensure that the lead culprit stayed employed.

The council should take steps to make sure this is the last time it’s blindsided by such charges.