Cindi Ross Scoppe

Bullying? Bribery? The Legislative State strikes again

The Richlan County legislative delegation questions then-Elections Director Lillian McBride about the 2012 election fiasco.
The Richlan County legislative delegation questions then-Elections Director Lillian McBride about the 2012 election fiasco. caberry@thestate.com

FIRST WE had the Richland County Election Commission run by an incompetent director who couldn’t be fired. Now we have the Richland County Recreation Commission overseen by what is alleged to be a bullying director who misuses public resources and won’t be fired because he bribes his bosses.

Granted, there’s a world of difference between Lillian McBride and James Brown III.

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We know that Ms. McBride oversaw what likely was the most bungled election in modern S.C. history and resigned as elections director only after her legislative patrons arranged for her to be hired as deputy director at an inflated salary.

With Mr. Brown, we have only allegations, but they are so scandalous that they make Ms. McBride look like the poster child for good government: that he paid bribes to at least two commissioners, punished employees who questioned his decisions, placed relatives in cushy jobs and forced employees to perform menial labor for himself and his relatives — on government time and at overtime pay.

But there is this common theme: In both cases, the elected officials required by law to pay the directors’ salaries have no control over them or the agencies they run. In both cases, it’s not clear that any elected officials have even indirect control over the directors. In both cases, we see the monstrous failures of the anachronism that is the Legislative State.

Scoppe: The SC Legislature’s special little governments

When the watchdog website The Nerve reported the allegations against Mr. Brown, based on lawsuits and interviews, the Richland County Council asked for an attorney general’s opinion on whether it can do anything about the commission.

The council members know as well as I do what the opinion will say: No. That’s because the Recreation Commission is one of the special little governments that legislators created back in the days before we had county councils but somehow failed to abolish when they created county governments, nearly a half-century ago.

These special purpose districts are run by commissioners who are technically appointed by the governor, but actually appointed by the state legislators who live in the affected county.

Richland Sen. Joel Lourie and Reps. James Smith and Beth Bernstein were outraged by the allegations against the Recreation Commission, and immediately vowed to do something, just as legislators vowed to do something about Ms. McBride. But their options are limited: As with election commissioners four years ago, there appear to be no provisions to allow the county legislative delegation to fire the commissioners it hires.

Also doubtful is whether there would be enough votes to oust them, though the trio ought to force the issue, and at least make their fellow legislators explain why they support commissioners who responded to the allegations by giving Mr. Brown a vote of confidence and hiding an internal investigation.

Scoppe: The Catch-22 of fixing Richland election mess

Sen. Lourie and Reps. Smith and Bernstein said they wanted to turn control of the Recreation Commission over to the County Council. That’s a wonderful idea — just like it was back in 2005, when the Legislature actually passed a law to turn control of the commission over to the County Council.

The ink on that law was less than 24 hours old when commissioners filed suit alleging that the legislators who appoint them have no right to give away that authority. In an order that Orwell couldn’t have imagined, the state Supreme Court agreed. It ruled 3-2 that it is unconstitutional for the Legislature to pass a law that overturns a law that would be unconstitutional if it were passed today.

Yes; read that again, and savor the absurdity. More specifically, the majority said the Legislature couldn’t pass a single-county law to overturn a single-county law that had been written back when such things were the norm, because the state constitution now prohibits single-county laws.

The Legislative State addendum

There’s no telling how the Supreme Court would react to a similar case today, but the only justice still on the bench, Chief Justice Costa Pleicones, was in the minority in that 2007 order. He and Jean Toal argued that while the constitution now prohibits legislators from injecting themselves into local matters by passing single-county bills, it allows them to use local bills to give up control over county matters, since that was the whole purpose of that provision.

Not wanting to gamble on the court, Sen. Lourie and Reps. Smith and Bernstein introduced statewide bills to let local legislative delegations turn control of independent recreation commissions over to county councils. That eliminates any constitutional questions, but it also means it’s not going anywhere this late in the session. Of course a local bill wouldn’t either unless most Richland legislators were on board.

Sens Lourie & Courson introduced this bill; and Reps Bernstein, Smith, Ballentine, Finlay, McLeod & McEachern introduced this one. Nothing from other Richland legislators.

So until pigs start flying over the State House, they also called on Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott to investigate — which was followed by other legislators calling for competing investigations.

A criminal investigation is a great idea too. But even if charges are brought and convictions won, we’ll still have the fundamental problem of government agencies that answer to no one. And only the Legislature can fix that problem.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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