Cindi Ross Scoppe

Why Gov Haley can, should fire Richland Recreation commissioners

SC Gov Nikki Haley delivers the State of the State address in January.
SC Gov Nikki Haley delivers the State of the State address in January. AP

IF THEY WERE state recreation commissioners, Gov. Nikki Haley would have already removed the five local commissioners who are whistling while the Richland County Recreation Commission burns.

Fortunately, we don’t have state recreation commissioners, but that’s not the point. The point is that 1) it’s the governor, not local legislators, who technically appoints the Richland commissioners and 2) state law allows her to remove nearly all of her state appointees for any reason she sees fit.

Unfortunately, state law treats her local appointees differently. It says that in order to remove county officials, the governor must find that they are “guilty of malfeasance, misfeasance, incompetency, absenteeism, conflicts of interest, misconduct, persistent neglect of duty in office, or incapacity.”

__________

Richland legislators demand 5 Rec Commission board members quit

Legislator calls for embattled Rec Commission director, some board members to quit

Sexual harassment? Intimidation? Bribes? It’s all predictable when no one’s accountable

__________

It seems clear that Recreation Chairwoman Marie Green and Commissioners Barbara Mickens, Weston Furgess, George Martin and Joseph Weeks meet that standard — at the very least in terms of “misfeasance,” which can mean as little as being careless in the way you perform your duties in office.

They are, after all, the people who refused to fire or even suspend Director James Brown III, who is under federal, state and local criminal investigations over allegations of bribery, who is alleged to have engaged in sexual harassment and belittled and threatened employees and who gave huge raises to his many relatives on staff.

They are the people who allowed the agency to exceed its $15,000 legal services budget for 2015-16 by $75,000; Ms. Green somehow failed to include that information in a response to legislators’ inquiries.

They are the people who spent tax money for an investigation into the allegations against Mr. Brown, received the report behind closed doors, came back into public and voted to “support” Mr. Brown, and for the six months since have refused to let anyone — even state legislators — see that report.

Ten of the 17 legislators who nominate commissioners for the governor to appoint have called on the five commissioners to resign. They cite the commissioners’ “approval of irresponsible compensation” and “lack of effective oversight” of Mr. Brown and ignoring “the hostile work environment,” “blatant abuses of nepotism” and “excessive litigation and costs.”

__________

Read the law spelling out the governor’s power to remove local officials, at 1-30-240(A)(3) and most state officials, at 1-30-240(B)

__________

It’s no accident that legislators have been using the term “malfeasance” to describe the commissioners’ action — and inaction. Richland County Democratic Reps. Beth Bernstein and James Smith and Sen. Joel Lourie are putting together a legal case they plan to present to Gov. Haley, asking her to remove the commissioners, although but they’ve detected some concerns about litigation.

Little wonder. Once, when the Legislature passed a law to turn control of the commission over to the County Council, which funds the agency, members of the commission sued, and unfortunately won. Beyond that, state law specifically gives county officials the right to appeal their removal in court, and at that point things can get messy.

We saw that when then-Gov. David Beasley used an identical law to remove Boykin Rose as director of the Department of Public Safety, one of a handful of state officials the governor can’t fire without cause. The state Supreme Court eventually upheld the firing, but only after Mr. Beasley spent a year defending it.

And so the recreation commissioners remain commissioners, even though they have performed no oversight and, to the contrary, seem to view their jobs as protecting Mr. Brown. And so Mr. Brown remains the director who claims to be on voluntary (voluntary!) paid leave (paid!) but who, according to the independent journalism website Quorum, is calling in every day to make sure things are being run to his liking.

The governor ought to put an end to this abuse of taxpayer funds and public trust, by removing the commissioners.

And the Legislature ought to change the law, to prevent such travesties in the future.

Ideally, lawmakers would abolish all single-county special purpose districts, including the Richland County Recreation Commission, or else turn them over to the county councils. But the Legislature has no interest in doing this, since so many legislators believe that they control those districts — despite clear evidence in this case that they really don’t. And it’s not clear that the current Supreme Court would be willing to overrule its Richland County Recreation Commission precedent and allow lawmakers to pass a law that abolishes only that one commission.

So at the least, let’s give the governor the same authority to remove her local appointees as she has to remove her state appointees.

If a governor can fire the full-time director of the state parks department simply because she wants to — that is, if she can take away his job and his income and his health insurance and injure his reputation without having to prove “cause” and subject herself to lawsuits — then surely she ought to be able to do the same to the citizens who volunteer to serve as part-time, unpaid members of a local parks commission.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

  Comments