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Bill Would Loosen Lawmakers’ Control Over Veterans’ Offices

County legislative delegations could give up their long-held power over the hiring and firing of county veterans’ affairs officers under a recently introduced S.C. House bill.

Rep. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg and sponsor of the bill (H. 4911), told The Nerve last week that county veterans’ affairs officers generally are not accountable to any county officials or the state veterans’ affairs director.

“It’s quite a convoluted mess,” he said. “Right now they’re out in no-man’s land.”

In most counties, legislative delegations screen candidates and recommend the hiring of county veterans’ affairs officers to the state veterans’ affairs director, who typically signs off on the recommendations. Under state law, delegations can fire county officers before their two-year terms are up, but only for cause, which Forrester interprets as being limited to breaking a law.

Forrester’s bill would allow – though it doesn’t require – county legislative delegations to transfer their hiring and firing authority to county governing bodies. State law currently allows three counties – Berkeley, Dorchester and Georgetown – more latitude in the appointment process.

Forrester’s proposal, which has 10 co-sponsors, was introduced Feb. 28 and is now in the House Judiciary Committee.

Not everyone, however, approves of the bill.

“It looks like they (lawmakers) are trying to get out of being responsible a little bit,” Todd Humphries, the county veterans’ affairs officer in Cherokee County, said when contacted by The Nerve last week. “Maybe they need to screen applicants a little bit better rather than appoint the good ol’ boys.”

Until the mid-1970s, county legislative delegations generally governed counties, including approving county budgets. The Home Rule Act , which took effect in 1976, was supposed to give counties more control over their own affairs, though lawmakers have retained some functions.

And county delegations still exercise control over local affairs by passing local legislation that generally is ignored by the rest of the Legislature.

Under state law, the state veterans’ affairs director typically appoints county officers but can approve only those who have been recommended by a majority of state senators and a majority of representatives serving a particular county.

Generally, a county officer must be a veteran who was honorably discharged after serving more than 180 days on active duty, or who was released from active duty after serving 180 days or less because of a service-connected disability. Non-veterans can serve in the position under state law, but only if a veteran candidate is less qualified. County officers are trained by the S.C. Office of Veterans’ Affairs.

A county officer can be removed for cause at any time before their two-year is up if a majority of both the Senate and House members representing the county agrees to it.

Among other things, Forrester’s bill would remove the “for cause” requirement, making the job an at-will position.

The bill would allow a county delegation to assign the authority for recommending appointments to the county’s governing body. The county would hire the veterans’ affairs officer, who then would be, under the bill, “considered a county official for all purposes.”

The bill, however, would allow county legislative delegations to reassume their authority after the officer’s two-year term expired, or if there were a vacancy. Forrester told The Nerve he inserted that language to head off possible opposition from some lawmakers.

“We were trying to make it as palatable as we can make it,” he said. “Some delegations won’t give up that power.”

In October, at Forrester’s request, the S.C. Attorney General’s Office issued a written opinion concluding that a county veterans’ affairs officer is not a county employee for “purposes of a county’s personnel policies,” and that the officer’s employees, though paid by the county, can be hired and fired only by the officer.

Humphries, the Cherokee County veterans’ affairs officer since June 2009, said he has concerns about giving county councils hiring and firing authority over him and fellow officers. As a comparison, he said other county positions, such as the sheriff, treasurer, auditor and clerk of court, are not controlled by county councils or administrators because they are popularly elected.

“They can’t be micro-managed as easily,” he said, noting his office is responsible for an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 veterans and their dependents.

Having hiring and firing authority remain with county delegations makes those lawmakers accountable to voters for their decisions, Humphries said.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Howard Metcalf, director of the S.C. Office of Veterans’ Affairs, a division of the Governor’s Office, said although his staff is responsible for initial training and continuing education for county officers, his office is not involved in the day-to-day affairs at the county level, and has no hiring or firing authority locally.

He said he believes current law allows county delegations to fire county officers at will before their terms expire, though he acknowledged there are differences of opinion on that subject.

Since becoming the state director, Metcalf said he is not aware of any county delegation firing a county officer before the officer's term expired. He said about 15 county officers have been hired since he assumed his position, noting he has not rejected any county legislative delegation recommendations.

“Overall since I’ve been here, out of the 46 counties, I would go so far to say that about 40 of them are doing a great job,” Metcalf said.

He declined to identify the other six counties, though he said complaints made to his office by veterans or their dependents about their county offices are referred to the respective county delegations.

Metcalf said he believes his office has done a better job than prior administrations working with county offices to improve services to veterans.

The state office provides a variety of services to South Carolina’s 413,000 veterans, including, among other things, according to the agency’s website:

  • Informing veterans, families and survivors of benefits;
  • Initiating and processing veterans’ claims for benefits;
  • Managing the South Carolina Free Tuition Program; and
  • Administering the South Carolina Military Family Relief Fund.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

General Assembly Legislation Local Government

Rep. Mike Forrester Howard Metcalf S.C. Office of Veterans' Affairs veterans' affairs officers