Cindi Ross Scoppe

Rogue agencies need reform? The power is in the purse

WHAT COMES to mind when I say “Richland County government”? The Recreation Commission? The Election Commission? Incompetence or fraud or some other unacceptable quality?

I don’t want to take up for the County Council. It has plenty of problems, from how it has overseen — or not overseen — the transportation tax program to that mind-boggling boondoggle involving payments to the secretive “Second Chance Afterschool Learning Environment” for … well, it’s not at all clear what for. And that merits a lot more attention.

But we need to be clear about who’s to blame for what. The two most troubled agencies that have “Richland County” in their names are beyond the control of the County Council. They are creatures of the state senators and representatives from Richland County, commonly referred to as the legislative delegation.

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At the intersection of SC legislative dominance, misplaced priorities & election debacles

Now that Haley has broken the taboo, what’s next?

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Although a majority of legislators finally is trying to clean up the Recreation Commission, it’s a bare majority, and the majority likely will have to do a good bit of compromising with the anti-reform minority. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Election Commission, the anti-reformers still seem to be in the majority.

All of which is to say there’s not much reason to expect we’ll see more than temporary improvements as long as the legislators are in charge.

It is against this backdrop that the County Council gave initial approval last month to an ordinance that prohibits it from paying legal bills for those entities it does not control. You know, like the $38,000 in attorney’s fees the council paid this fall for a lawsuit the Election Commission lost a year and a half earlier, but never bothered seeking funds to pay. And all that money the Recreation Commission spent on an investigation of allegations against then-Director James Brown III — which the commissioners refused to make public.

It’s an important statement, but it is only a first step. A very small one.

The problem isn’t simply that these unaccountable agencies get to use the words “Richland County” in their names, thus leading people to believe they are part of the government controlled by the County Council. Far, far worse: The County Council is required by law to fund them.

But here’s the thing: State law doesn’t say the council has to give them all the money they want. It says the Recreation Commission must receive $4.9 million — which is much less than half what the council gave it last year. The 2012 law that merged the voter registration office into the Election Commission required the council to provide it with the average received by the Charleston and Greenville commissions, which increased total funding from $800,000 to $1.2 million. But that requirement was repealed two years later when all those special single-county laws were replaced with a standard law for all county election commissions, which simply requires the counties to pay for “necessary expenses.”

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Richland Council says no more bailouts for offices it doesn’t oversee

Richland County begins audit of Recreation Commission

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The council has voted to withhold the other $8.4 million of the Recreation Commission’s budget until it completes an audit, but council members haven’t indicated they would cut off the commission cold turkey. They should. They also should slash the budget for the Election Commission.

That seems harsh — particularly for the Election Commission, since it actually does stuff that’s essential. But this untenable situation is never going to change until legislators believe it has to change — and probably not just Richland County legislators.

The legal reasoning is complicated, but it is virtually impossible to imagine that the Supreme Court would allow the Legislature to give control of the Richland County Election Commission to the Richland County Council without doing the same in the other 45 counties. That’s not the best solution anyway: The best solution is for the state to take control of elections, and pay for them. And the only way legislators will ever consider either the best solution or the better-than-nothing solution is if the Richland County Council refuses to provide the funding the election commission asks for. And if the rest of the county councils do the same. Which they need to do.

It is possible that Richland County legislators could turn control of the Recreation Commission over to the County Council. They tried that once, the commission sued, and the state Supreme Court ruled that the law violated the state constitution — although then-Chief Justice Jean Toal and now-Chief Justice Costa Pleicones said in a dissent that it was perfectly constitutional. It’s anybody’s guess how the court would rule today, but it’s worth noting that the court can’t rule any way unless someone files a lawsuit, and the court rules that this someone has standing to sue, which not many people would have.

I would never advise anyone to violate the constitution. But as legislators look to replace departed and removed commissioners, it might be wise to add another vetting question: Will you pledge not to sue if we pass a law to dismantle the agency? Just as legislators should reject any candidates who refuse to make that report on Mr. Brown public, they also should reject anyone who refuses to make this pledge. If only as a matter of principle.

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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