Warren Bolton

Bolton: A legitimate proposal or a Richland County Council chairman scorned?

Richland County Councilman Norman Jackson
Richland County Councilman Norman Jackson

SOMETIMES, YOU can gain some interesting insights by reading agendas and minutes from local governments.

Like I did recently when perusing Richland County Council’s minutes.

One council member wanted colleagues representing districts made up of an overwhelming number of city residents to be compelled to run at-large to earn a seat on the 11-member body.

Another member wanted the body’s chairman to be elected by a popular vote countywide rather than chosen by the County Council.

Not sure what to make of these failed proposals, I picked up the phone and talked to a few council members, including Norman Jackson, who proposed changing the way some council seats are elected.

Council members living in heavily urban districts have few, if any, services or other needs to address because the municipality takes care of everything, Mr. Jackson said. As a result, those members don’t understand the needs of citizens in rural areas, and they have little incentive or desire to help those outside of their own districts.

If council members from urban areas had to be elected countywide, they would better understand the needs of all citizens, he said. Mr. Jackson said that’s why he proposed dissolving all single-member County Council districts where at least 75 percent of their citizens reside in a municipality and replacing them with at-large seats.

He said council members Greg Pearce, Seth Rose and Paul Livingston serve districts whose populations are more than 75 percent city residents, and they don’t have to address the same kinds of needs as council members from rural areas such as Eastover and Hopkins.

Getting members who already enjoy amenities provided by a municipality to help in other areas can be difficult, he said. “We have to be groveling and fighting” to cobble votes together to get things done, the Lower Richland councilman said.

“What do they do? They don’t do anything but come to the meetings,” Mr. Jackson said. “Really, they’re just there.”

Ouch. That’s frustration, folks.

But what’s not clear is where that frustration comes from. Mr. Jackson insists his push for change — change not allowed under state law, or the U.S. Constitution, by the way — was motivated by the concern that urban council members aren’t responsive to rural citizens. But some of his colleagues say it’s more likely that the councilman is expressing sour grapes over not being re-elected as chairman of County Council for a second year.

Those who would be affected by the change in the election process proposed by Mr. Jackson didn’t support him for a second term as chairman.

For years now, Richland County Council has operated on a gentleman’s agreement that allowed the chair to serve two consecutive years, even though a vote is taken each year. But council members disenchanted with Mr. Jackson decided to boot the veteran, choosing Torrey Rush, a first-term council member, instead.

I don’t know how things went down. But when you operate under those kinds of hand-shake agreements, you create certain expectations, and when you deviate from them, it creates heart burn. It’s not wise to operate under such a system. No one should be allowed to just assume he gets a two-year stint as chair; you never know how bad a leader he might turn out to be.

No doubt, Mr. Jackson, having seen one chair after another serve two years, expected he would be allowed to do the same. So I can imagine how he might have felt when Councilman Livingston nominated Mr. Rush and a majority backed the move.

Some council members told me that Mr. Jackson tried to rule with an iron hand, acted more like a mayor than a council chairman and at times treated members of the public rudely.

But Mr. Jackson said that he respected everyone. At the same time, he expected those who came before the council to be orderly. “As chair, I keep the peace, but I’m very outspoken,” he said.

Mr. Jackson, who also has proposed a review of all the county’s policies and guidelines, said some of his colleagues don’t like his outspokenness. He said he believes he was ousted because of some strong stances that he took, particularly when it comes to the penny sales tax vote and some of the projects involved.

Still, the council’s unprecedented move to deny Mr. Jackson a second term as chairman is noteworthy. Let’s be real: The council has had other chairs who have had their own quirks but still managed to last two years.

But Mr. Jackson said he isn’t angered by it. “If that’s their choice, that’s their choice. I’m OK,” he said.

It’s clearly not OK with Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson, who proposed having voters elect the chairman of council instead of council members themselves. She said in her motion that the current process has become too personal.

But Mr. Jackson said he has no problem with the current system “I’m OK with how it is,” he said.

That said, I’ve had a couple of council observers tell me that the way the vote went down for chairman could prove problematic in the long run. You’ve certainly got to wonder what this means for council harmony. And what about the next race for chairman? Will it be a cutthroat process that causes deeper division?

Some council members wouldn’t talk to me on the record because they said members are working to improve relationships.

I wish them well.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.