Less than a month after Gov. Nikki Haley signed a 2011 law allowing Richland County’s legislative delegation to hire a county elections director, the delegation quietly selected Lillian McBride to oversee the newly combined elections and voter registration offices at a starting salary of $85,000, records show.
Since then, McBride’s annual pay has increased by $1,394 to $86,394, according to records. Now, however, the delegation’s vice-chairman says he and other delegation members were wrong to vote for McBride’s hiring in the wake of what has been described as one of the worst county election debacles in recent state history.
“In my 28 years in the South Carolina Senate … I have never seen something as simple as conducting an election as messed up as this one was,” Sen. John Courson, a Republican and the Senate president pro tempore, told The Nerve on Tuesday.
A shortage of voting machines in the county’s 124 precincts, along with numerous reports of malfunctioning machines, resulted in hours-long waits for many voters in the Nov. 6 election and reportedly caused others to not vote.
The meltdown has resulted in several lawsuits and prompted a packed delegation meeting Monday during which McBride, speaking publicly for the first time since the election, offered an apology but few new specifics about what went wrong on Election Day.
Courson told The Nerve that last year’s delegation vote to hire McBride, who had been Richland County’s voter registration director before the elections and voter registration boards were combined, was “unanimous,” though he couldn’t recall if any delegation members were absent during the meeting at the State House.
Minutes of the noon June 1, 2011, meeting, which were provided Tuesday to The Nerve by James Brown, executive director of the county delegation office, show that 12 members of the 15-member delegation were present when McBride’s hiring was approved, though a vote breakdown was not given.
Besides Courson, lawmakers present for the vote included delegation chairman Sen. Darrell Jackson and Sen. John Scott; and Reps. Jimmy Bales, Nathan Ballentine, Joan Brady, Mia Butler Garrick, James Harrison, Leon Howard, Joe Neal, James Smith and Todd Rutherford, according to the minutes.
Like Courson, Ballentine, Brady (who lost her re-election bid) and Harrison (who retired from the Legislature) are Republicans; the others are Democrats.
Sen. Joel Lourie and Reps. Christopher Hart and Joseph McEachern, all Democrats, were absent from the meeting, according to the minutes.
Fifteen minutes before that meeting, a majority of the five-member Appointments Committee, made up chairman Bales, Courson, Garrick, Hart and Howard, voted to recommend McBride’s hiring at a starting salary of $85,000, according to a committee report provided Tuesday to The Nerve. Courson and Hart were absent from that meeting.
The Appointments Committee also voted to recommend appointing Columbia attorney Liz Crum as chairperson of the newly combined Board of Elections and Voter Registration; and Adell Adams, Allen Dowdy, Elaine Dubose and Tina Herbert as the other board members, according to the committee report. A majority of the full delegation approved that recommendation, in addition to McBride’s hiring and starting pay.
The committee report and minutes did not indicate whether there were any other candidates for McBride’s position, though Ballentine told The Nerve on Tuesday that Mike Cinnamon, the county’s now-retired elections director who was known for running elections smoothly over his 37-year career, also applied along with a third person whom Ballentine said he didn’t know.
Cinnamon declined comment when contacted Tuesday by The Nerve.
Ballentine said unlike Lexington County’s delegation appointment process, the Richland County delegation typically votes only on those candidates recommended by the Appointments Committee instead of considering all candidates at once.
Brown, the Richland County delegation’s executive director, confirmed that practice, though he added that the delegation is free to reject the Appointments Committee’s recommendations. Asked, though, whether he could recall if that ever had occurred in recent years, Brown replied, “You know how that works: Normally, they have their votes lined up.”
“It was a fait accompli, basically,” Courson said of McBride's hiring, noting that “some people (in the delegation) were advocates” for McBride, including Jackson.
The low-key 2011 meetings were held in a third-floor conference room at the State House, according to the committee report and delegation meeting minutes, in contrast to Monday’s packed meeting at the Senate’s Gressette office building on the State House grounds.
The delegation meeting was advertised in advance and included an agenda, in compliance with the state’s open-meetings law, according to Brown, adding that his office typically forwards that information to the county’s public information office for distribution to area media.
County spokeswoman Melinda Edwards on Tuesday provided The Nerve with a copy of the notice of the 2011 meeting, though she could not immediately locate the meeting agenda.
On May 9, 2011 – less than a month before the delegation meeting – Haley, a Republican, signed the law creating the combined Richland County voter registration and election boards, and giving the county delegation the power to hire the initial director. The bill was sponsored Jackson, Courson, Scott and Lourie.
The Nerve in September reported that despite her public statements opposing local legislation, Haley this year signed at least a dozen bills dealing with issues affecting only one county or several counties.
The South Carolina Public Interest Foundation, a not-for-profit, government-watchdog organization in Greenville; and William “Rusty” DePass, a Richland County resident and former State Election Commission chairman, have filed a lawsuit against the state, Jackson, Courson, Lourie and Scott, contending that the 2011 Richland County law is unconstitutional because it “constitutes a local or special law where a general law can be made applicable.”
Besides Richland County, state law gives legislative delegations in at least three other counties – Abbeville, Aiken and Edgefield –the power to hire a county elections director, though among that group, only the Aiken County delegation has the specified authority to fire its director.
Asked why Richland County lawmakers felt it was necessary to control the hiring of the county's initial elections director under the new law instead of letting the county elections board make that decision, Courson replied, "That was not discussed."
At the request of Sen. Scott, the S.C. Attorney General’s Office on Monday issued a non-binding opinion contending that the county elections board – not the legislative delegation – has the authority to fire McBride.
Contacted Tuesday, delegation member Howard told The Nerve that he has “complete confidence in Lillian McBride’s ability to do that job,” noting that the Election Day problems in Richland County were caused partly by factors outside McBride’s control, such as the lack of early voting.
Courson said as a result of the elections mess, he would like to see county legislative delegations stripped of their appointment powers in various county affairs, including the appointment authority over election boards and, in the case of the Senate, its power to nominate county magistrates.
“Any governing entity should have appointment authority if they provide the funding,” he said.
Concerning who should control county elections in the future, Ballentine said he is “considering taking it the other way,” recommending that the State Election Commission be in charge of county elections instead of leaving it to “46 fiefdoms.”
But Howard said he believes the Richland County delegation’s appointment authority in certain county areas has been successful, citing the recreation commission as an example.
“There are some things we need to keep our hands on,” he said.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.