Legislative infighting: Inside a dysfunctional delegation

September 16, 2021

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

In South Carolina, county legislative delegations – made up of state House and Senate members representing a county – have considerable power on their home turfs.

As The Nerve has pointed out, delegations make appointments to various local boards and committees, including school boards in some counties and most county transportation committees, which decide what local road projects to fund with part of the state gasoline tax.

Senate delegations – sometimes just one senator – control the selection process of county magistrates, while county delegations exert nomination powers over master-in-equity judges, as The Nerve has reported.

The Nerve also has revealed that delegations have conducted official business in secret, skirted the state’s open-meetings law, and offered scant meeting information to the public.

On top of all that, there are power struggles within some delegations. Take the seven-member Kershaw County delegation, for example.

In a January letter to the other six delegation members, newly elected Republican Sen. Penry Gustafson said she was “greatly concerned about following the law in regard to Kershaw County,” contending the delegation selected newly elected GOP Rep. Vic Dabney as the delegation chairman and hired a delegation assistant without holding a public meeting, as required by state law.

“The law was violated when closed-door, nonpublic decisions were made privately,” Gustafson wrote.

Besides Gustafson and Dabney, the other members of the Kershaw County delegation include House speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington; Reps. Jermaine Johnson, D-Richland, and Will Wheeler, D-Lee; and Sens. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, and Mia McLeod, D-Richland.

Gustafson in her Jan. 31 letter said under a federal appeals court ruling, the hiring of a delegation assistant had to be done by a weighted vote among delegation members. She provided a breakdown of the weighted percentages, which are based on the number of residents in the county represented by each lawmaker, with her seat and Dabney’s showing the largest percentages among all delegation members at about 31% each.

Included with Gustafson’s letter was a copy of a Dec. 30, 2020, delegation “declaration” naming Dabney as the delegation chairman. Only Gustafson’s signature line was left blank on the document. McElveen’s signature was listed as “By VMD (Dabney’s initials) per phone conversation 12/30/2020”; “Vocal approval 12/30/2020” was listed on McLeod’s signature line.

In a 2007 written opinion, the S.C. Attorney General’s Office said state law doesn’t allow the circulation of a letter or petition to cast a “vote” as a “substitute for a physical ‘meeting’” by a delegation.

The S.C. Supreme Court in 1996 ruled that a county legislative delegation is a public body under the state Freedom of Information Act. The law requires public bodies to give advance notice of public meetings, cast any votes during open session, and make minutes of the proceedings available to the public.

Gustafson’s January letter wasn’t the only time she has raised concerns about internal delegation matters. In a June 8 letter to the Kershaw County Council, she said she was objecting to a $39,335 “salary package” offered to new delegation assistant Katie Guinn, contending the amount was “excessive.”

Gustafson voluntarily released copies of her June and January letters at The Nerve’s request. The county provided other delegation records to The Nerve under the state’s open-records law.

Republicans shocked Kershaw County’s political establishment in the November general election when Gustafson defeated longtime Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who made two previous unsuccessful bids for governor, while Dabney defeated longtime Democratic Rep. Laurie Funderburk.

Chairman battles

Contacted Wednesday by The Nerve, Dabney, who resigned his delegation chairmanship in April, said other delegation members urged him after the November election to become the chairman, contending that shortly after winning her election, Gustafson “assumed the role of chairman without any endorsement from the current delegation.”

He said Gustafson at the time was planning to hire a delegation assistant without “communicating any of this with the delegation,” and that she went to the Kershaw County Council and “demanded an office of her own and a large salary for this person (delegation assistant).”

“I remember saying, ‘I don’t want to be the chairman,’” Dabney recalled telling other delegation members when they later called and asked him to accept the position. “They said, ‘Well, you need to be. You need to be the chairman to put this thing back on track.”

Except for Gustafson, Dabney said he called all the delegation members to get their consent to become the chairman, and also met with several of them to get their signatures listed on the Dec 30 “declaration.” He said he had Guinn fill in McElveen’s and McLeod’s signature lines on the document after getting their verbal approval.

Dabney acknowledged that “by the letter of the law,” the delegation “probably should have had an open meeting” in December to select him as chairman. He contended, though, in-person meetings were discouraged then under COVID-19 pandemic protocols, and that his becoming chairman “wasn’t a decision being made that would really affect the public.”

Records show the delegation met in person on Feb. 9 to formally approve Dabney as chairman and hire Guinn as a delegation employee. Dabney said the meeting was held in the Blatt Building, where House members’ offices are located, on the State House grounds in Columbia while the Legislature was in session.

He also said it was the delegation’s idea as a group to meet there, but acknowledged that future meetings should be held in Kershaw County to make it more convenient for county residents.

In a written statement provided today to The Nerve, Gustafson disputed Dabney’s claims about her actions following the November election. Among other things, Gustafson said she and Dabney were scheduled to meet with county administrator Vic Carpenter on Nov. 6, but Dabney didn’t show up, making it clear to her in a follow-up phone call that he had “no intention of even talking with me.”

Gustafson said Carpenter had informed her on Nov. 6 that the state “mandates office space and the position of a delegation legislative assistant,” though there was “no discussion whatsoever about a salary change for the future assistant.”

“With zero communication with Mr. Dabney, I did lead the charge to get the delegation office in order and was planning on calling for a formal delegation meeting,” she said, adding, though, she did not “try to hire anyone.”

As for the Dec. 30 delegation “declaration” naming Dabney as the chairman, Gustafson said other delegation members informed her that Dabney had visited them at their home offices to ask them to support him as chairman, “telling each he would be talking with me.”

“He never contacted me, nor did anyone else,” she said. “I was excluded silently from the process while doing my very best to follow every rule and do things right.”

Publicly, Dabney has been no stranger to controversy in his first year as a state lawmaker. In a rare move, 33 House Democrats, including delegation members Johnson and Wheeler, introduced a resolution on April 8 to formally censure him. The resolution contended his public statements about a hate-crimes bill were “so egregious as to amount to personal attacks” against House members in violation of a House rule which “regulates decorum in the body and prohibits disrespect to the House and all personalities.”

The lawmakers’ action stemmed from a Facebook post by Dabney that, according to his critics, contained racist language. The resolution was referred to the House Ethics Committee, which is supposed to police the 124-member body for ethics violations.

In an email response this week to The Nerve, Jane Shuler, the committee’s chief lawyer, said the committee, chaired by Rep. Jay Jordan, R-Florence, hasn’t taken any formal action on the resolution. Dabney told The Nerve no one from the committee has contacted him.

“I take that as a badge of honor,” Dabney said of the resolution, noting it was sponsored only by Democrats.

As for the controversial Facebook post, Dabney denied it was racist and said he stands by it “100%.”

Dabney resigned his delegation chairmanship in mid-April, Carpenter said in an email this week to The Nerve. Dabney said he resigned “at the request of the Democratic members of the delegation,” adding, “Rather than cause a problem, I said, ‘Fine.’”

Rudderless delegation

The Nerve last month submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Kershaw County for recent delegation records submitted to the county, including delegation letters and all official actions taken since Dec 1. The county released:

  • The Dec. 30 delegation approval of Dabney as the delegation chairman.
  • A Feb. 18 agreement requiring the county to provide the delegation with an employee, at county expense, though the delegation “may recommend” the employee’s salary. The Nerve previously revealed that a 1975 state law requires counties to fully fund delegation offices, though some counties pay lawmakers in lieu of the offices.
  • A June 10 letter from McElveen, Wheeler and Johnson to Carpenter, in which the lawmakers, in response to a local news story about the proposed doubling of the delegation’s annual budget, said that the only official actions taken by the delegation were at the Feb. 9 meeting to “elect a Delegation chairman (who has since resigned that post), and the second was to approve the hire of a Delegation secretary.” Dabney told The Nerve that Guinn’s salary also was discussed at that meeting, though the other delegation members in their letter said they didn’t recall “any sort of discussion regarding a 100% increase of the County’s financial allocation to the Delegation.”
  • A June 21 letter from Carpenter to the delegation providing a timeline of events starting with the Dec. 30 delegation’s appointment of Dabney as the chairman, and including, among other things, subsequent discussions with Dabney about the hiring of Guinn as the delegation assistant, as well as details about her salary and office expenses.

“As is known, Kershaw County is required, by law, to approve any reasonable request from The Delegation as regards a budget,” Carpenter said in his letter, noting Guinn received her first paycheck on Feb. 26, and that the county council on June 8 approved a $39,335 budget for this fiscal year for her salary and delegation office expenses.

“Kershaw County acted under the assumption that The Delegation Chair was representing the will of the Delegation,” Carpenter wrote. “Upon his resignation, there was nobody remaining to give guidance or to direct changes. Therefore, The County acted in good faith in passing the budget.”

Contacted this week by The Nerve, Carpenter in an email response said, “To date, the local Delegation has not met to elect a new chairman.”

And the delegation isn’t in any rush to do so, according to Dabney.

“The delegation functions just fine, actually, without an official chairman,” he said, noting that Guinn “keeps everything rolling along and everybody informed.”

“I get along great with the other delegation members – minus Gustafson,” Dabney also said, adding he has never met Sen. McLeod.

The county’s website contains a link listing delegation members and their office contact information, though there are no details about past or upcoming delegation meetings. The delegation also has a Facebook page, though no information about delegation meetings is presented there.

Dabney said he would ask Guinn to update both the website and Facebook page with information on the delegation’s Feb. 9 meeting in Columbia – the only formal meeting held so far this year.

In her written statement to The Nerve, Gustafson described the delegation as “dysfunctional and handicapped by a lack of leadership, which I will gladly embrace at the discretion of the delegation.”

“Not working together will only hurt our constituents,” she said. “My hope is that we will soon meet, elect a chairman, and go on to work together for the betterment of our community.”

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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