By RON AIKEN
Who’s responsible for the ongoing train wreck: County officials … or the General Assembly?
There is no such thing as a surprise general election.
While this may seem obvious, it illustrates the point that few elements of a democracy are as reliable as elections. Their schedules are known decades in advance (longer, really), and across the country some 20,000 towns and cities, 3,007 counties, 137 parishes and all 50 states budget for, execute and plan them successfully every year (data from the 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data).
The question Richland County Council members are asking is why, then, of all those entities in all those places, has the Richland County Election Commission so badly calculated its needs as to require a doubling of its annual $1.24 million budget halfway through the fiscal year despite a higher annual budget than Greenville’s election commission ($1.02M), which has more registered voters and less than half the number of full-time employees?
The answer is simple – like the Richland County Recreation Commission, the Richland County Election Commission is governed by a board appointed by the county legislative delegation and is run by an executive director hired by and accountable to that board, not county council.
The result is a council confused over the request, frustrated with the lack of information provided by executive director Samuel Selph and irate about a system in which the council is nothing more than a funding arm with no governing authority over a group charged with running democracy itself – a group that, four years ago, turned in the worst performance in county history that the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division just this week confirmed it still is investigating.
The genesis of the public battle between the election commission and county council can be traced directly to March 15, 2011.
On that day Sens. Darrell Jackson (D-Richland), John Courson (R-Richland), John Scott (D-Richland) and Joel Lourie (D-Richland) introduced S.692 as sponsors, a bill “to combine the Richland County Election Commission and the Richland County Board of Voter Registration into a single office.” The bill provided for, among other things, an increase in the budget for the new office of some $400,000 more than the two offices had combined before.
Without a single ‘nay’ vote in either the House or Senate, Gov. Nikki Haley signed the bill into law on May 9, 2011, in a move that paved the way for the disastrously mismanaged elections of 2012, the public budget fight in 2016 and an ongoing war of words between a beleaguered council and “out-of-touch” legislative delegation critics say is too concerned with its own business to recognize or remedy a toxic situation it created where none existed before.
“State law overseeing the election commission is an absolute mess,” said county councilman Seth Rose. “It’s not fair to the county, it’s not fair to the commission itself, and it’s certainly not fair to Richland County taxpayers.”
Rose has expressed concern about the election commission’s recent request for an additional $1.2 million, citing the $400,000 annual raise the election commission began receiving in 2011 and has continued to earn ever since.
“What I don’t understand is how we can have had elections run well for decades on a certain budget, then state law increases that budget by 33 percent over each of the past five years and somehow you need a million more halfway through just to meet your obligations for elections you knew you had to budget for?
“That’s an additional two million dollars over five years versus their budget before. It’s like I’ve said before, the question I have, as do other members of council, is simple. Where has the money gone?”
A big part of the answer to that question also is simple: salaries.
Unlike the Greenville County Election Commission’s seven employees, the Richland County Election Commission has 16 full-time employees whose total salaries eat $1.03 million of the commission’s $1.24 annual budget.
That generous percentage leaves little wiggle room for runoffs, unexpected expenses or special elections such as the upcoming one the county will hold to replace the seat held by Kelvin Washington until it was vacated by Gov. Haley for Washington’s having committed a crime of moral turpitude by not paying taxes for three years. (The governor’s move was announced just hours before Washington was indicted by a grand jury for felony DUI with injury.)
For council members struggling to make sense of the commission’s fuzzy math, accountability has become a four-letter word.
“The legislative delegation needs to have a better grasp of what goes on with the election commission,” county council chairman Torrey Rush said. “Their lack of oversight and controls have led to the issues we are currently dealing with today.
“They have created the formula in which the election commission is funded and mid-year have asked the commission to come back to the county for more funding. I just don’t agree with that process at all. The election commission should be turned over to the county for operational oversight, not just funding.”
WHO FAILED VOTERS?
Council members reached by The Nerve this week said they were appalled by a recent comment by Richland County legislative delegation member Rep. Nathan Ballentine (R-Richland). A key member of the group that created the combined elections and voter registration office, Ballentine voted to put former director Lillian McBride – widely criticized as the author of the 2012 election failures – in charge over longtime director Mike Cinnamon and establish a system depriving the county of control.
Speaking to The State newspaper, Ballentine said given the “nightmare” of 2012, “I have to believe (county leaders) know how important the elections are and that they can’t fail the voters again.”
For one council member who preferred to remain anonymous but was familiar with the 2011 legislation, Ballentine’s statements smacked of hypocrisy.
“When I read that, I was livid,” the council member said. “It was the legislative delegation’s failure. Everybody knows that. They created a mess to get their people in place to change a system that wasn’t broken and they took no responsibility after it went horribly wrong except to protect their people.
“He knows we don’t have the authority to change anything, only they do because they appoint the board. Statements like that are infuriating to us on council because they make it look like we’re not giving the commission the funds to run elections when they have more money than they ever did before and can’t account for why they’ve run out halfway through the year.
“And then we’re the ones left to clean up their mess and try to figure out what the heck’s going on.”
For members like Rose, without accountability and transparency from a commission operating outside its jurisdiction, he will exercise the only power he has – his vote.
“I cannot support allocating any more money over what could be deemed a state law-mandated robust budget until an audit of the finances is conducted.”
County council rejected the election commission’s additional funding request for good Tuesday night. It reflected costs for the previous year’s elections and expenses up to the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016. It did not include costs associated with the upcoming general election, which will take place, as scheduled, in November.
Reach Aiken at (803) 254-4411. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC. Like what we’re doing? Sign up for email alerts to receive breaking news at the top right-hand side of the page.