Cindi Ross Scoppe

Richland recreation director’s departure is a good start ... but only a start

Sen Joel Lourie and other Richland legislators explain why five Richland County Recreation Commissioners need to resign.
Sen Joel Lourie and other Richland legislators explain why five Richland County Recreation Commissioners need to resign.

LET’S IMAGINE that James Brown III didn’t voluntarily retire as director of the Richland County Recreation Commission. Let’s imagine that the five commissioners who have stood by him lo these long months finally told him he could either “retire” or be fired after his indictment last week on a misconduct in office charge and his subsequent arrest on a charge of intimidating a witness.

Granted, that’s not easy to imagine, since Mr. Brown’s protectors and enablers stood by him through lawsuits alleging bribery and sexually predatory behavior and through that $35,000 taxpayer-paid investigation that they still won’t let the public see. But it’s not uncommon in government or business for employers to give problem employees the option of resigning rather than being fired.

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So if the five Brown-supporting commissioners did finally decide that Mr. Brown had to go, just as Gov. Nikki Haley was considering a strong case for removing them from office, well … that’s good.

But it’s not good enough.

Gov. Haley still needs to remove Chairwoman Marie Green and Commissioners Barbara Mickens, Weston Furgess, George Martin and Joseph Weeks. Because even if they were to tell us that they gave Mr. Brown an ultimatum, it wouldn’t outweigh what they have done and left undone up until now. (And no, not seeking reappointment next year is not enough.)

As 10 of the 17 legislators from Richland County explained in a letter last week asking the governor to remove them, the five turned a blind eye to “the hostile work environment” at the agency, allowed “blatant abuses of nepotism,” approved “irresponsible compensation,” overlooked “numerous allegations of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior” by Mr Brown, incurred “excessive litigation costs and expenses” and failed to provide adequate oversight of their director.

As those 10 legislators explained to the governor, when employees complained about sexual advances and threats, “One commissioner went so far as to question the victim as to why she would complain since she is ‘gainfully employed and making a good salary.’”

As those 10 legislators explained to the governor, the commissioners stood by as Mr. Brown’s son and daughter and brother were promoted, despite a state law that makes it illegal for public officials to “cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer, or advancement of a family member to a state or local office or position in which the public official … supervises or manages.” (The payroll is packed with other Brown relatives and family friends and relatives of commissioners, who don’t fall under the nepotism law but whose jobs make the place look more like a poorly run family business than a government agency.)

Read the anti-nepotism law, at 8-13-750

Quick sexual-predator gut check: Do you believe the women who have accused Donald Trump of unwanted sexual advances? Do you believe the women who have accused Mr. Brown of unwanted sexual advances?

If your answer is yes to the first question but no to the second, what do you think it is that makes Mr. Trump’s accusers believable and Mr. Brown’s accusers unbelievable?

If your answer is yes to both, and — particularly if you are one of the seven Richland County legislators who have stood so loyally by Mr. Brown — if you think that Mr. Trump’s actions make him unfit to be president but that Mr. Brown deserved to keep his job unless or until he was convicted of a crime, why do you think that is?

And do you realize that you’re being intellectually dishonest? So grotesquely partisan that you can’t even tell the difference between serving the public and serving one individual to whom you are, for reasons I can only imagine, so obscenely loyal?

Now, where were we?

Ah yes. Mr. Brown is gone, and it’s hard to imagine that the next director will carry precisely the same baggage that he did. But those five commissioners have proved themselves so completely lacking in good or even mediocre judgment that you can bet any any new director they hire will have problems of some sort. And you can bet that they’ll ignore those problems — just like they ignored Mr. Brown’s problems.

The governor needs to act sooner rather than later to remove those commissioners — so she can replace them while the 10 legislators who want to protect the employees and the taxpayers rather than the director and commissioners still have the votes to nominate replacements. (Although governors technically appoint commissioners to these special purpose district boards, they always defer to the local legislators’ nominations.)

Of course, new commissioners who are named later would have the power to fire an already-hired director — and anyone who applies for that job needs to know that he or she can and should be replaced once we have a new board. But in South Carolina, we have a huge problem with inertia: Once someone is hired, the bosses — particularly part-time bosses on an unaccountable commission — tend to want to leave that person in place. So we need to prevent the current commissioners from making that hire.

Gov. Haley didn’t create this mess. But she is the only person who has the power under state law to fix it.

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.

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