Cindi Ross Scoppe

They fired him for cause. Now we’re paying him $1 million for ... what?

Council confusion: Richland County struggles to pass million dollar settlement for Gerald Seals

Richland County Council chair Joyce Dickerson labors to pass a million dollar settlement for fired County Commissioner Gerald Seals after an executive session.
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Richland County Council chair Joyce Dickerson labors to pass a million dollar settlement for fired County Commissioner Gerald Seals after an executive session.

LET’S PRETEND that’s somebody else’s $1 million that the Richland County Council just squandered … and that all of those other crazy, wasteful, self-serving things a migrating majority on the council keeps doing are also somebody else’s responsibility.

That way, we can laugh our heads off at the utter incompetence of the gang that can’t govern straight.

At the risk of being overtaken by actions even more irresponsible before I finish writing this, the latest outrage is the council’s 5-4 decision to pay fired county administrator Gerald Seals $1 million to go away. Which came after its 5-6 decision to put him on paid leave as part of the process of terminating him for cause. Which came after an earlier 5-6 decision to fire him without saying why. Which came without anyone on the council realizing that state law prohibited it from firing a county administrator without notice. And which raised the specter that the county might have to pay him a whole year’s salary. Which seems like a pretty good deal now.

Of course, if the payout somehow makes Mr. Seals’ grandiose Richland Renaissance plan go away, it could turn out to be money well-spent, since we can only guess how much that project will end up costing taxpayers. But while Renaissance prompted some critics to support his ouster, the bizarre coalition that removed him included Renaissance supporters who apparently had more personal reasons to let him go. So that money-sucking vampire is unlikely to go gentle into that good night.

Since the discussion of the payout was held in secret, the equally bizarre coaltion of Seals critics and supporters who signed off on it explained themselves only in not-for-attribution comments to The State’s Sarah Ellis. Their wholly inadequate explanation: They were trying to protect the county and individual council members from potential lawsuits. Potential.

Which raises the question: Huh?

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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Recall that after the council originally fired Mr. Seals, and he rightly complained that state law requires that county administrators be given notice and a chance to appeal their terminations, the council voted to fire him properly, and for cause, alleging that he took major actions without council input, drove off key staffers and slept during council meetings. Which prompted Mr. Seals to allege that his six critics had made “thinly disguised desultory insults, character-bashings, innuendos, derisions, and personally and professionally” defamed him. (He also said he had his eyes closed praying when he was accused of sleeping.)

All of this suggests two possibilities. Either Mr. Seals was an outstanding administrator who was defamed by council members who concocted a batch of lies so malicious that there was a chance he could meet the extremely high bar that public officials face to win the not-yet-filed lawsuits. Or else this payoff was just the latest example of recklessness — spending five times the most he should have been due, which he would have been due only if he could prove that the causes for his firing were illegitimate. Which — who knows? — they might have been.

I do applaud Mr. Seals’ refusal to sit quietly and accept Council Member Norman Jackson’s efforts to funnel even more tax money into the overgrown pond he has convinced the council to pour obscene amounts of money into. But based simply on his secretive Renaissance dream, it’s hard to believe that he was an outstanding administrator.

And when an elected body spends this kind of money without providing more than a pro forma explanation, we have not only the right but the obligation to assume the worst.

Which seems like a safe bet with this council.

Set aside all the other most recent outrages, and specifically the comedy of errors that surrounded the council’s first attempt to fire the absent Mr. Seals — an effort that was punctuated by Chairwoman Joyce Dickerson bickering with Mr. Jackson over who would inform Mr. Seals of his fate, which I’m guessing he already knew, since the meeting was being live-streamed.

Instead, consider only Monday night’s sequel. It began with Ms. Dickerson declaring that no action had been taken in the four-hour, closed-door meeting, which is nice since state law prohibits any action in such meetings. Next she read from notes: “The firm offer to settle made by Mr. Seals has been accepted and approved. I would entertain a motion to authorize our attorneys to sign the agreement on council’s behalf. That’s my motion. I need a second.”

This was followed by the county attorney and other council members scrambling to correct what was either a gross misunderstanding of the notes or else Ms. Dickerson’s admission of a violation of the state law she had just declared unmolested. She tried a second time, this time reading, “The firm has made a offer to settle …, and it has been properly accepted and approved,” before Council Member Dalhi Myers interrupted her to make the legally correct motion, to actually accept the settlement offer.

After that motion initially failed on a 4-4 tie tie — prompting one exasperated council member to exclaim, “Oh, come on! Come on!” — Council Member Yvonne McBride said she had forgotten to vote, because she was reading the settlement. County Attorney Larry Smith declared that Ms. McBride could indeed ask for a do-over, even though she hadn’t voted the first time (let’s assume that the council has adopted some bizarre parliamentary procedure that allows this sort of thing).

This time Ms. McBride remembered to vote, thereby helping birth the Richland County Council’s Million Dollar Man.

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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