Editorials

Legislators have duty to question Richland Recreation Commission

Of course Richland County legislators need to question officials with the agencies they oversee, as they did then-Elections Director Lillian McBride about the 2012 election fiasco.
Of course Richland County legislators need to question officials with the agencies they oversee, as they did then-Elections Director Lillian McBride about the 2012 election fiasco. caberry@thestate.com

DESPITE A LONG LIST OF problems at the Richland County Recreation Commission, state Sen. John Scott believes it’s inappropriate for some of his fellow legislators to publicly ask basic questions now.

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He holds that belief even though:

▪ Four current or former employees have filed lawsuits against the agency alleging sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior;

▪ The Richland County Sheriff’s Department, the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, the State Law Enforcement Division and the FBI have launched investigations into corruption allegations at the department;

▪ The sheriff’s department filed seven drug-related charges against a top agency official, who also is the agency director’s son;

▪ The Richland County Council is withholding 63 percent of the department’s funding until an audit is completed;

▪ James Brown III, the department’s director, requested and was granted a paid leave of absence.

Sen. Scott, a Democrat, believes asking questions publicly is inappropriate at this time even though county legislators appoint the commissioners who oversee the department. That means the 17 Richland County legislators are the only people directly elected by the public with even indirect oversight of the department.

Sen. Scott says legislators should not get involved until the law enforcement investigations are complete.

He’s wrong.

The senator became annoyed last week when five state representatives and three senators sent a letter with four basic questions to the recreation commission. The letter was sent under the Richland County Legislative Delegation’s official letterhead even though nine of the legislators didn’t sign on.

The eight members say they are “extremely disturbed by what has been happening at the Recreation Commission.” They write that they are concerned about the department’s employees, “who may be working in an environment of intimidation and harassment.”

The legislators — Democratic Sens. Joel Lourie and Thomas McElveen and Reps. James Smith, Joe McEachern and Beth Bernstein and Republican Sen. John Courson and Reps. Nathan Ballentine and Kirkman Finley — also say Mr. Brown’s leave of absence “only continues to erode public confidence in the agency.”

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The eight asked for details about Brown’s leave of absence and whether he continues to receive all of the same benefits “as if he was working.” They wanted to know if taxpayers are footing the bill to defend the civil lawsuits filed against the department and whether James A. Brown, the director of recreation who is accused of the drug crimes, still has a job at the agency. He is the son of James Brown III.

Finally, they asked for the department’s nepotism policy. If the department doesn’t have a policy against nepotism, the legislators wanted to know why not.

That’s all the letter asked for.

Most of that information is readily available under South Carolina’s open records law. Any citizen has the right to ask how tax money is being spent. Any citizen can ask for copies of an agency’s policies. Any citizen can ask whether someone is still a public employee.

Citizens have every right to seek that information for whatever reason they want it. Legislators not only have the same right; they have an obligation to ask for it, and much more.

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We wonder why the other Richland County legislators didn’t join in asking for that information. In fact, why didn’t all 17 ask tougher questions? For example: Why is Mr. Brown getting paid during his leave of absence? The answer may be that he should be paid, but the question is legitimate.

When Sen. Scott, who is African-American, learned of last week’s letter, he suggested the inquiry from seven white legislators and one African-American had racial overtones. “This is the second time the same group has made an inquiry as it relates to an African-American director,” he said.

The first inquiry involved then-Richland County election director Lillian McBride. She oversaw the worst election fiasco in modern S.C. history, which resulted in many voters waiting in line for hours.

Certainly, South Carolina’s history is littered with stories of African-American officials being undermined because of their race. But there’s nothing inherently racial about elected officials seeking basic information about the agencies they oversee. That’s especially true when one of the agencies has been the target of multiple lawsuits and criminal investigations.

We might have a different view of the letter if the legislators didn’t appoint the recreation commissioners. In fact, we think it’s ridiculous that the delegation makes those appointments. The county election and recreation departments should ultimately answer to the county, not local state senators and representatives. The departments would have far more accountability if the directors reported to the county administrator instead of commissions that are appointed by 17 legislators.

But that system is in place now. Because it is, legislators must hold those agencies accountable. When serious questions are raised about one of them, the legislators must find out what’s going on. And at some point — and we are well past that point here — it needs to be done publicly in order to reassure the public. They can’t shirk their responsibilities just because a criminal investigation is underway, although they obviously should not interfere with law enforcement officers.

We don’t know whether the lawsuits and the criminal investigations will uncover widespread wrongdoing or clear Mr. Brown, the agency and the commission.

But the elected officials entrusted with overseeing the commission can’t wait until the criminal investigations are completed before they start asking questions.

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