Majority of county legislative delegation in favor of immediate resignations
By RON AIKEN
As 10 members of the Richland County delegation — a majority — renewed the call for five members of the Richland County Recreation Commission to resign effective immediately, they also promised something new: they would take the fight forward with the end goal of wholesale change and possibly a restructuring of the embattled commission itself.
The commission members were those who voted to support executive director James Brown III after receiving a $35,000 report investigating allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation at the agency: board chair J. Marie Green, vice chair Barbara Mickens, secretary Weston Furgess, George Martin and Joseph Weeks.
Assembled Wednesday morning in the marble halls of the State House lobby, Sens. Joel Lourie and Reps. Kirkman Finlay, Nathan Ballentine, James Smith, Beth Bernstein and Joe McEachern spoke at length about being deeply troubled by published reports and allegations and that subsequent inaction on the part of the board in the face of those claims was enough to erode public trust to the point where their resignations were required to restore faith in the commission.
Signing a formal letter to the commission demanding the resignations but not in attendance were Sen. Thomas McElveen and Reps. Mary Gail Douglas and Mia McLeod.
What started as complaints of sexual harassment that led to a $35,000 independent investigation the commission won’t release has escalated over time into accounts that range from blatant nepotism to allegedly illegal activities that implicate board members and division heads at the agency. The outcry from recreation department employees and their families led Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Richland) to spearhead an inquiry into the agency’s spending and practices that has the support of the majority of the delegation.
While investigations by SLED, the FBI and the S.C. Ethics Commission continue, Re. James Smith emphasized that the call for resignations had nothing to do with the outcomes of the criminal investigations, which those delegation members opposed to action have cited as the reason to do nothing.
“This is about public trust,” Smith said.”We vote no confidence in this board.
“Malfeasance is present and is undeniable. This only ends with their resignation. The status quo cannot stand. Citizens deserve transparency and accountability.
The goal is restoring public trust in the recreation commission. Either the commission can resign today or we will pursue options.”
When asked what those options were lawmakers demurred, but since the power to remove the board rests entirely with Gov. Nikki Haley, it would take her involvement in removing them. Wednesday’s press conference seemed designed to give her the ammunition she would need.
Section 1-3-240 of the South Carolina Code of Laws allows the governor to remove any officer of the county or state “either with or without the advice and consent of the Senate; who is guilty of malfeasance, misfeasance, incompetency, absenteeism, conflicts of interest, misconduct, persistent neglect of duty in office, or incapacity… .”
To prove malfeasance specifically, lawmakers unveiled an easel listing six separate acts of malfeasance:
- Disregarded the hostile work environment for the employees
- Blatant abuses of nepotism
- Approval of irresponsible compensation
- Multiple allegations of sexual harassment and other inappropriate conduct
- Lack of effective oversight
- Excessive litigation and costs
Lourie promised action soon.
“We are at the tipping point now,” he said. “We’ll take whatever procedural actions to fulfill goal.
Besides calling for the resignations, the lawmakers also said the entire structure of governance that bred the lack of oversight needed reform. That call was appreciated by Richland County Councilman Seth Rose.
“We have a moral duty to make sure the Recreation Commission is run with the highest integrity and provides top-notch services to all citizens from our youth to our seniors,” Rose told Quorum. “It also needs to be accountable to taxpayers of Richland County. This situation is very similar to what we saw in 2012 with the county Election Commission because it, too, is a special purpose district overseen by the county’s legislative delegation.
“Moving forward, I believe the best long-term solution is for control of the Recreation Commission to be transferred to county government, who has the ability to oversee the commission. Even if the director resigned today, the systems of accountablity still need to be restored to prevent similar problems from happening again a few years down the road.”
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia. Like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our email list on the top right of the page.
I feel for the families involved. This is a problem from the inside out,