LET’S START WITH the good things that have happened since we first learned about the mess at the Richland County Recreation Commission, because goodness knows there’s more than enough bad:
▪ The Richland County Sheriff’s Department, SLED and the FBI agreed to investigate allegations that Executive Director James Brown III has been harassing and intimidating employees and paying bribes to commissioners.
▪ The Richland County Council voted to withhold most of the commission’s budget until the agency is audited by an auditor chosen by the county.
▪ The Richland County legislative delegation voted to ask the Recreation Commission to suspend Mr. Brown pending the outcome of the criminal probes.
▪ Mr. Brown put himself on indefinite (paid) leave — one hopes because he was warned he was about to be suspended.
Sadly, the bad is worse.
While the County Council voted to withhold $8.4 million of the commission’s budget until that audit is completed, state law still requires it to provide $4.9 million to the entity over which it has no authority.
And while withholding the money absolutely was the right thing to do, at some point that hurts employees who have done nothing wrong and the people who use the county’s recreation services.
So this could become a Solomonesque test, where we see whether the commissioners care enough about the employees and the public to give in to the council’s demands.
As nice as it is that he’s no longer running the place, the fact that Mr. Brown voluntarily put himself on leave suggests that he could voluntarily return to work whenever he pleases.
And his self-imposed paid vacation came just a day after WACH TV aired an interview with an anonymous whistleblower who described in graphic detail a harrowing and frankly horrible work environment.
Two weeks after that interview aired, the independent journalism site QuorumColumbia.org published what it said was a transcript of a crude, profanity-laced meeting Mr. Brown had with his staff in January, in which he referred to employees as animals, said he had been treating them too well and issued what could be taken as threats of physical violence toward anyone who complained.
The website quoted someone it called a “20-plus year human resources veteran” who said she had never seen such clear evidence of a hostile work environment.
Another Quorum article last week reported that the commission exceeded its $15,000 budget for legal services for 2015-16 by $90,000 and that commission Chairwoman Marie Green failed to include that information in a response to legislators’ inquiries.
Not that it really matters what she tells legislators, or anyone else.
State legislators from Richland County appoint the commissioners, but their control ends there. Commissioners serve fixed terms, and legislators appear to have no power to remove them — and so no power to make them do anything.
It’s not even clear that the delegation has the will to do anything if it could. Five legislators voted against asking the commission to suspend Mr. Brown.
After Sen. John Scott wound up on the losing side of that 9-5 vote, he complained that, “We acted too prematurely in getting involved in this investigation.”
Seriously. As if you or I would still be going to work every day while local, state and federal police investigated job-related criminal allegations against us.
And one of the nine legislators who voted to request the suspension, Rep. Mia McLeod, subsequently declined to sign a letter asking some pretty basic questions about Mr. Brown’s voluntary suspension. (Can he return at will? Is he receiving all of the benefits he would if he were working? Has his son been fired since being arrested on drug-trafficking charges?)
In response to that letter, Mr. Scott essentially accused the signatories of racism for airing the public’s business … in public. Rather than working things out behind the scenes, I suppose. Seriously.
It is deeply disturbing that Sens. Scott and Darrell Jackson and Reps. Jimmy Bales, Leon Howard and Todd Rutherford have so little interest in finding out what is going on and trying to set things right.
But of course there’s an even larger problem here: the inability of any elected official to see to it that this mess gets fixed.
Unless they are in extremely sensitive positions — members of the Ethics Commission, for instance — all appointed officials should be subject to removal at will.
We don’t often see such glaring examples of the folly of giving autonomous part-time boards unlimited authority to run government agencies, but we’re sure getting schooled in the dangers of that right now.
If we ever needed evidence of why this special little government needs to be dismantled and its duties handed over to the County Council, we don’t any more.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.