Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Richland County Council has a message for voters, but I can’t print it

Richland County Council members Torrey Rush, Greg Pearce, Seth Rose, Norman Jackson and Kelvin Washington discuss the county jail in this 2013 photo. Only Mr. Pearce and Mr. Rose think voters have a right to know how council members vote.
Richland County Council members Torrey Rush, Greg Pearce, Seth Rose, Norman Jackson and Kelvin Washington discuss the county jail in this 2013 photo. Only Mr. Pearce and Mr. Rose think voters have a right to know how council members vote. tdominick@thestate.com

IF YOU LIVE in Richland County, there’s an 82 percent chance that you have County Council member who holds you in utter contempt. Believes it’s none of your business how he or she votes. On zoning requests in your neighborhood. On how much money to allocate to the Sheriff’s Department or the schools or anyone else. On how much money to squander on an overgrown pond that the council has visions (hallucinations?) of turning into a tourist mecca. On raising your taxes. On, well, anything.

That’s the nice way of putting it. The not-so-nice way of putting it is to say that 82 percent of the council members just voted to give themselves cover to lie to you about how they vote. On, well, anything.

Nine of the 11 council members just said to the public, well, something I’m not going to repeat. But it’s a two-word phrase that ends with “you.”

Earlier this month, a council committee torpedoed Seth Rose’s request to have roll-call voting at County Council meetings, instead of simply having voice votes where no one can even make out the voices. When his modest proposal arrived at the full council meeting later that day with a “vote no” recommendation, Mr. Rose made it even more modest, asking simply to have the staff look into ways council members’ votes could be identified in more cases, and report back to the council later.

Greg Pearce joined Mr. Rose in voting for that proposal. The rest of the council members voted against even looking for quick-and-easy ways to record some of their votes. That’s Bill Malinowski, Joyce Dickerson, Damon Jeter, Paul Livingston, Torrey Rush, Jim Manning, Julie-Ann Dixon, Kelvin Washington and Norman Jackson.

Banana republicanism

You’d think the council’s votes already would be recorded, as are significant votes on the Columbia City Council, and the Lexington County Council, and the Richland school boards that the County Council funds, and in the S.C. House, and Senate.

I mean, not requiring any recorded votes is banana-republic stuff even by South Carolina standards. If you don’t know how your representative votes, you can’t hold him accountable for how he votes. If you can’t hold him accountable for how he votes, he’s not actually your representative. He’s representing himself … and whoever it is whose interests interest him.

Unrecorded voice voting also can change the outcome of votes. If you watch a council meeting, you’ll notice that 1) nearly all actions are declared to have passed “unanimously” and 2) council members often seem not to be voting at all. If everyone had to raise their hands, the votes might still be unanimous. Or they might be split. Or we might discover that some motions actually failed, instead of passing unanimously.

Opponents say, when they’re willing to say anything, that there’s no need to require recorded votes because any member can request one — as Mr. Rose did on the vote to kill routine recorded voting. Mr. Rose says it would be disruptive to have to make that request on every vote and, besides, other council members glare at you when you do that.

There are at least two far better retorts: First, if we leave it up to Mr. Rose to demand all those recorded votes, there would be no one to hold him accountable when he’d just as soon no one know how he voted. Second, with this council, there’s no guarantee that asking for a recorded vote will result in a recorded vote: Last summer, there was what sounded like a very close voice vote to defer action on a controversial zoning request involving a mansion in St. Andrews. When then-Chairman Norman Jackson declared that the council had voted to defer, Mr. Rose asked for a revote. It’s a common request to make in any sort of meeting when a voice vote sounds close. But Mr. Jackson refused Councilman Rose’s request. Twice.

Frankly, that should have been enough by itself to cause the council to institute mandatory recorded voting. And depose the chairman. Because, even by South Carolina standards, that’s lawless lawmaking.

414 seconds per meeting

Mr. Rose told me that during the committee discussion of his proposal, opponents complained that recorded voting would take too long. And you know, I had a lot of sympathy when state senators said that Gov. Nikki Haley’s demand for roll-call votes on all bills would take too long: There are 46 senators, and the Senate can vote on scores of bills in a single day. And yet, the Senate manages to take roll-call votes on every bill — and a lot of other things.

There are 11 members of the Richland County Council. I looked through the minutes for their past two regular meetings: There were a total of 18 votes at each one. Eighteen. When Mr. Rose demanded and got his recorded vote on mandatory recorded votes, it added a total of 23 seconds to the meeting. Twenty-three seconds. Eighteen votes at 23 seconds each would add a grand total of 414 seconds — that’s just under seven minutes — to a meeting.

Watch the vote. Go to 1:10:30 into this video.

Mr. Rose told the committee that if time was a problem, the council could buy electronic voting equipment — which made sense for the 124-member S.C. House, and is why recorded voting isn’t really an issue there, but which makes no sense for an 11-member council.

At the council meeting, he fell back to asking that staff look into options — which could include mandatory voting only on, say, “action” items, or zoning items, or spending items, or whatever. At the council meeting — the one that’s streamed live and then posted on the county’s web site for all the world to see — not a single person put up an argument against Mr. Rose’s argument, or against his fall-back proposal. Because, well, what could anyone say in opposition?

The denial denial

There was that one comment from Mr. Malinowski, who chairs the committee that torpedoed the proposal and who interjected what he called a “point of clarification” just before the vote. “The committee did not deny this,” he announced. “The committee recommended keeping the current procedures in place.”

As a Richland County resident, I would find that horribly insulting … if I hadn’t been rolling on the floor laughing at the idea that anyone could possibly be so full of himself as to believe that voters are stupid enough to fall for such an absurdly ridiculous claim.

Of course the committee, followed by nine of the 11 council members, rejected mandatory recorded voting. Rejection: That’s what you call it when someone proposes to change the way things are done, and you vote to keep doing them the way you’ve been doing them.

Of course the committee, followed by nine of the 11 council members, rejected any notion of accountability. Accountability: That’s something voters can demand of their elected officials only if they have a way to find out what their elected officials are doing.

Of course the committee, followed by nine of the 11 council members, embraced the right to … well, to lie to voters. To tell them “oh, yes, I definitely voted for that” when “that” is something the voter likes, or “oh, no, I definitely voted against that” when “that” is something the voter dislikes.

Now, maybe no one on the council has ever lied to voters. Maybe none of them ever would. But that is what “the current procedures” allow. Invite. Facilitate.

And that is what nine of the 11 members of the Richland County Council just voted to continue doing.

If you feel like someone just spit in your face, you probably live in a district that elected one of those nine.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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