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Charleston Citizen Reporter: County Attorney’s High Pay Stirs Debate

The Charleston County Council has been dogged for years by the issue of remuneration for the county’s attorney.

At the core of the issue is the unusual way his compensation is set. County Attorney Joe Dawson receives a base amount but is allowed to charge for extra work.

This extra work, relating to important legal matters involving the county, has been significant some years and boosted his total pay.

Part of that boost over the past year or so was $90,000 for heading the county’s Solid Waste Division. In the past year, Dawson’s total compensation was $400,000, compared with a base salary of $170,000.

So is the county attorney paid too much? How do you judge? Compared to other high-level Charleston County officials, he is very well paid.

Salaries for senior staff exceed $100,000 a year, though usually are less than $150,000.

A comparison with other county and municipal attorneys suggests also that he is well compensated. But this is to ignore the success of the attorney.

Over the years of covering council meetings, I’ve heard nothing but praise for Dawson’s abilities and the millions of dollars he has saved the county.

And as Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said at the most recent meeting, much of the legal work undertaken by other counties and municipalities is “farmed out.” By keeping much more legal work “in house,” the county’s overall bill is minimized.

Council member Joe Qualey appears largely responsible for raising the issue of remuneration again. His hostility to the county attorney has been apparent in some recent County Council meetings.

Qualey is chair of the Administration, Policy and Rules Committee and at the last meeting he initiated discussion to make the county auditor and county attorney responsible to the county administrator. Presently both report to the council chair.

This discussion followed another: to bring all issues that came to a vote in a committee before the full Finance Committee regardless of the vote. For example, if an issue were voted on in the Administration, Policy and Rules Committee, it would still go before the Finance Committee, regardless of the result.

Councilman Henry Darby was quick to rise at the end of Qualey’s introduction. He and others questioned the purpose of changing the rules relating to bringing all issues to the Finance Committee.

Why bother with the Administration, Policy and Rules Committee if everything was going to come before the Finance Committee regardless? Darby later declared that there was a vendetta being conducted. It became clearer with more discussion that he considered it aimed at Dawson.

It didn’t take long thereafter to get to the remuneration issue. But it passed first through a discussion on the merits of keeping both the county auditor and attorney responsible directly to the chair.

Qualey thought that placing them under the administrator would make each more accountable.

But Darby and Pryor disagreed, arguing that both needed to be independent and not influenced by the administrator in making their views known to the council.

Councilman Dickie Schweers suggested that the county needed a new policy and that to help shape it, information should be gathered as to what other counties and municipalities do and pay.

He declared that it seemed the county was incapable of managing the county attorney, a declaration that was aimed at the County Council and not Dawson.

Pryor was the first to raise the specific amount that Dawson received. Darby objected that if there were to be a discussion of compensation, it should not be in public. Schweers then noted that all salaries and remuneration were available to the public.

Schweers recollected that he supported the appointment of Dawson to the head of the Solid Waste Division. But he could not recollect any discussion of Dawson’s extra remuneration.

He said that he would have thought that there would be no extra remuneration. In industry, individuals are often tasked with extra duties without additional compensation. Pryor, later in the discussion, stated that “all things came before council. The information was always there.”

Schweers also said that he thought Dawson did a “stellar job” and his views were not personal.

Councilman Elliott Summey noted problems and inefficiencies in Solid Waste before Dawson took control. He pointed to the reduction in the cost of waste disposal to well below the $47-a-ton rate that prevailed before.

Qualey was asked at the conclusion of the meeting what would happen next. He said that most likely a vote would be taken at the next meeting to move all issues before committees to the Finance Committee regardless of the vote.

However, he said the issue of accountability needed more discussion.

Other issues likely to be debated again soon include Dawson’s pay, who he reports to and who should manage the county’s Solid Waste division.

Warwick Jones is a Citizen Reporter for The Nerve and a resident of Charleston who has been involved with a number of organizations there, including the Charleston County Greenbelt Advisory Board and the Preservation Society of Charleston.

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