City Watch

The Price of Incompetence: $153,000, and So Much More

By Kevin Fisher
Wednesday, May 8, 2013

“Richland County taxpayers are footing the bill for nearly $153,000 in legal fees to investigate what went so wrong in the Nov. 6 election …”  — The State, May 4

The money is only the beginning. But let’s start with it, as it is our money.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that from the attitude of Richland County elections officials, who did not volunteer that information. Instead, The State had to obtain it through South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Prior to that, those same elections officials had declined to release the identities of the finalists for the job of elections director, a clear violation of state law.

Combine those things, and you get the message: government is theirs, not ours; tax money is theirs, not ours. And these are just appointed officials — the elected ones put them to shame when it comes to public servants acting like public bosses.

After all, it was not the Richland County Board of Elections, nor even Richland County Council, which put an obviously unqualified Lillian McBride in charge and set the great election debacle in motion. No, that was the Richland County legislative delegation. That august body had all of the power in appointing McBride, but none of the responsibility for her job performance.

How can that be? It’s one of those “only in South Carolina” parodies of government, a relic of the so-called “legislative state” that has held us back for decades — make that centuries — and still produces this kind of nonsense.

While legislative control over local government was officially abolished in the 1970s with the Home Rule Act, this incident reminds us of how state legislators continue to this day to exercise power over local affairs in which they have absolutely no business being involved.

Yet even in the wake of our Third World election, nothing has changed. As the legislative session comes to a close, the Richland County legislators who made this mess have done nothing to correct it, nothing to turn full control of the Richland County Election Commission over to Richland County Council, where it obviously belongs. Nor has Richland County Council demanded that control, a sign of its own acquiescence to legislative power and weakness in asserting home rule.

Nowhere is that weakness more apparent than in who is paying the legal bills for fallout from the great election debacle: Richland County Council. Yes, even though they played no part in putting McBride in charge and creating the Nov. 6 meltdown, it is County Council that must mop up after it — using our local tax dollars, of course.

At present, that tab is at $153,000: attorney Steve Hamm has been paid over $72,000 for his investigation into what went wrong; attorney John Moylan was paid over $51,000 in public funds by the CMRTA to defend the outcome of the penny sales tax referendum in the wake of the botched election; finally — and no doubt the taxpayers’ favorite expenditure — attorney John Nichols was paid almost $10,000 to “look out for McBride’s interests,” as The State reported, adding, “he negotiated with the elections board for McBride’s new position.” That’s right, after her sterling performance as elections director, we the taxpayers hired a lawyer to represent McBride in negotiating a new job with the elections commission. You just can’t make this stuff up.

But the price of incompetence in the Richland County election fiasco goes far beyond legal bills. It also shows in the weak field of finalists to fill the elections director position. (By the way, does the search committee not have Mike Cinnamon’s number?) Once those finalists were publicly identified, we learned they were quite the group, featuring lack of certification, undisclosed investigations for alleged election law violations, etc.

But should we really expect better? Top elections professionals want to work in a professional environment, not a political circus and public quagmire.
Finally, the price of incompetence involves division among our citizens, not only between black and white but within the African-American community as well. That is the worst of it all, the legacy of the great election debacle. Let’s hope it’s not a lasting legacy. 

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics. Let us know what you think: Email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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