Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: A new era of accountability on the Richland County Council?

Richland County Council Members Torrey Rush, Greg Pearce, Seth Rose, Norman Jackson and Kelvin Washington
Richland County Council Members Torrey Rush, Greg Pearce, Seth Rose, Norman Jackson and Kelvin Washington tdominick@thestate.com

IT’S NOT OFTEN THAT voters in South Carolina speak out, and their elected officials listen and take action. So it’s worth celebrating when it happens.

It happened on Wednesday, when the Richland County Council did a 180-degree turn on giving voters an opportunity to hold council members accountable for their votes.

The council had voted 9-2 back in May against a proposal by Council Member Seth Rose to find a way — any way — to record the names of council members voting for and against items on the agenda, instead of taking action by voice votes, which often are indecipherable. After I wrote a column about how arrogant and irresponsible and banana republic-ish that was, voters gave council members a piece of their mind, and Council Member Jim Manning introduced a similar motion.

Council Chairman Torrey Rush started calling “division votes.” Any council member always had the option of requesting a division vote, but few were willing to, because other council members seemed to resent it. And Mr. Rush’s initiative was nice, but there was nothing permanent about it; he could stop just as easily as he started.

Meantime, Mr. Manning’s motion languished in committee for nearly two months, so I wrote about it again on Sunday. And Monday morning, Mr. Manning called to thank me for bringing the matter back up and to say it had simply slipped through the cracks. Over the next 36 hours, he had his motion added to Tuesday’s Rules Committee meeting, the committee tweaked it, and the full council approved the change without any dissenting votes.

So good for the Richland County Council, and good for all of those voters who encouraged their council members to support this. By adopting the new procedure, council members stripped themselves of the ability to vote in favor of a controversial proposal and then tell voters they opposed it, or vice versa. Now their votes will be recorded in the council’s minutes.

What this means is that for the first time, voters will have the tools they need to hold their council members accountable, because of course you can’t hold elected officials accountable if you don’t know how they vote. What this also means is that it will be incumbent upon voters to hold their council members accountable.

The new procedure is better than the one Mr. Manning proposed in June: It applies to both second and third reading votes, rather than just third reading. But it doesn’t require recorded votes on procedural matters. That’s not a problem except in the case of votes to kick the public out of a meeting to go into executive session.

That needs sunlight because local governments in this state are notorious for discussing things in executive session that should be discussed in public, and the Richland County Council is no exception. I’m not talking about violating the law, although that happens way too often. I’m talking about discussing things in secret that simply shouldn’t be discussed in secret, regardless of what state law allows — like purchasing prime lakefront property in the middle of a residential neighborhood, at potentially inflated prices, for … well, for who knows what? I hope we’ll be talking more about that as more information becomes public.

But that drawback is tiny compared to the improvement. And even those votes will be recorded if a council member simply asks for them to be — which shouldn’t be the problem it has been, since that request would have to be made, at most, once per meeting.

Mr. Rose started pushing for routine recorded votes after an outrageous incident last year in which then-Chairman Norman Jackson refused to acknowledge his request for a recorded vote on a controversial zoning matter. He told me Tuesday night that while he’d prefer a slightly different procedure, this was major progress, “and I will take major progress over none.”

Mr. Manning noted that “many times how we get to where we end up is awkward at best, but it is generally pretty good for the populous of this particular county.”

Now, I’m sure cynics might think Mr. Manning was less than sincere in saying he simply forgot about the motion, that he had been inundated once again by angry voters and was trying to save face; he had, after all, led the early opposition to roll-call voting. Pragmatists, of which I am one, would say: Maybe he’s sincere, and maybe he’s not, and frankly it does not matter. What matters is that the Richland County Council joins the Columbia City Council and the Lexington County Council and the S.C. House and Senate in requiring its members to attach their names to their votes.

The reality is that what the council did is really the least we should be able to expect of our elected officials; indeed, Richland County was an outlier, even by S.C. standards.

But another reality is that Mr. Manning did not have to get his motion moving, and the council did not have to adopt it, because heavens knows that this council has done plenty of other things over the years that were maddening, and most members came out none the worse for it. So this was a victory for the public. You might even say it’s a great day in Richland County, South Carolina.

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

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