Ousted School Board Member: State Seeks Power Grab in Boundary Law

December 17, 2014

Investigative Reports

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District Five Lexington and Richland CountiesUnder a little-known bill that quietly became law this year, a division of a new state agency will have the authority to settle county boundary disputes.

That worries Kim Murphy, who was removed from the Lexington-Richland School District 5 Board of Trustees last year after Bobby Bowers, a top official with the new agency – the S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office – contended her home was located on the Lexington County side of the district and not in Richland County, which she represented and where she has paid property taxes and voted for years.

“I think it’s a railroad job,” Murphy, a former citizen reporter for The Nerve, told The Nerve last week. “One person should not have that much authority.”

Murphy contends the new law gives Bowers the authority he didn’t have before she was removed from the school board.

Establishing official county boundary lines is important in determining a number of things, such as where people pay their property taxes or send their children to school, or what districts elected officials represent.

In July, Murphy, a longtime vocal critic of the school board who was elected to a board seat in 2010, sued the board, Bowers and Robert Gantt, the former board chairman and current vice-chairman. In her suit, filed in Richland County Circuit Court by Columbia attorneys Lewis Cromer and Ashley Story, Murphy contends, among other things, that Bowers, Gantt “and others met at various times and places, schemed, conspired and planned in secret to make a baseless and shammed determination that Plaintiff is not a (resident) of Richland County and thus removed her from the Board.”

After The Nerve left a phone message Monday for Bowers seeking comment, his boss, Frank Rainwater, executive director of the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office, returned the call but said he could not comment on Murphy’s case because of the pending lawsuit. Bowers is director of the agency’s mapping and census division.

Neither Gantt, who has served on the Lexington-Richland District 5 board for 14 years and was elected this month as president of the South Carolina School Boards Association, nor school district spokesman Mark Bounds responded to written and phone messages this week from The Nerve seeking comment for this story.

Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry and the author of the law (Act 262) granting the S.C. Geodetic Survey (SCGS) section, which Bowers oversees, the authority to resolve county boundary disputes, told The Nerve on Tuesday that Bowers had contacted him about drafting the bill, which was introduced in February and became law in June. But he said it had “nothing to do with that one particular case (Murphy),” though he noted his legislative district includes part of the District 5 school district.

“Bobby said that would give them the ability to go in and resolve a lot of border disputes between counties,” Cromer said.

Bowers-Gantt Connections

Bowers, a Lexington County resident, previously served on the Lexington School District 1 Board of Trustees and was its chairman for seven years, according to an online biography. In 1982, he was president of the South Carolina School Boards Association.

In 2013 Bowers held the title of director of the division of research and statistics under the old state Budget and Control Board (BCB), which was reorganized this year with the creation of the state Department of Administration.

On Jan. 11, 2013, Bowers wrote to Jasper Salmond, then-acting director of the Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, asking him to remove Murphy and a neighbor from the county voter registration rolls, contending their homes on Old Laurel Lane near Chapin were located in Lexington County, according to a copy of the letter Murphy provided to The Nerve. The first line of the letter reads, “In a recent request from Robert Gantt, Chairman of the Richland Lexington School District Board of Trustees we are reviewing a (sic) residential addresses along the Lexington and Richland County boundary.”

The letter was dated just  three days before Gantt informed Murphy for the first time at a board meeting of his concerns about her residency, concluding in a public statement, according to her lawsuit, with a “strong recommendation that Plaintiff ‘do the right thing’ and resign.”

Murphy didn’t resign, and the school board arranged a hearing on Feb. 15, 2013, conducted by retired Circuit Judge G. Thomas Cooper of Camden – the same judge who ruled in 2002 that Murphy could not use any audio recording device to record discussions of a school district citizen-advisory committee of which she was a member. (A state Court of Appeals judge later ruled in favor of Murphy.)

Murphy did not attend the hearing.

In a March 14, 2013, report to the school board, Cooper said there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Murphy lives in Lexington County, noting that Bowers and Sidney Miller, former chief of the state Geodetic Survey section, “testified that there is ‘absolutely’ no doubt” that Murphy’s home is in Lexington County.

“It has been my pleasure to assist the Board in this matter,” Cooper wrote in a cover letter to his report, concluding, “Enclosed also is my statement for services rendered.”

Bounds, the school district spokesman, did not respond to written questions this week from The Nerveabout, among things, whether Cooper was paid by the district, and if so, how much.

At a March 19, 2013, meeting, the board approved a motion by Gantt to remove Murphy from the board, effective immediately. Murphy appealed the removal, but Richland County Circuit Judge DeAndrea Gist Benjamin on Oct. 30 of this year upheld the board’s action.

In his 2013 report, Cooper said Bowers and Miller arrived at the same but “separate” conclusions about Murphy’s residency by examining three sources: the U.S. Census block database, official voting precinct maps and state law specifying the boundaries for Richland and Lexington counties.

What wasn’t done, Murphy told The Nerve, was a professional, boots-on-the-ground survey.

“The only way you can determine whether one line is different from another is to do a survey,” she said. “It doesn’t mean standing on a corner and doing mathematical calculations. They never located the corner posts.”

Murphy pointed out that under the new law, Bowers’ Geodetic Survey section “shall analyze archival and other evidence and perform field surveys geographically to position all county boundaries in accordance with statutory descriptions.”

She also provided The Nerve with a copy of a Feb. 20, 2013, email – issued five days after the hearing conducted by Cooper – from Will Roberts, who manages the precinct demographics section in the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office, to Dean Crepes, director of the Lexington County Registration and Elections Department. In the email, Roberts indicated that Geodetic Survey staff had not yet reconstructed the Lexington-Richland county boundary.

“The plan is to have our staff research and reconstruct the boundary and get input from both Lexington and Richland counties,” Roberts wrote. “Once the survey has been done, it is up to the counties to make the changes.”

Roberts also acknowledged then that Geodetic Survey staff could not force counties to accept any of their proposed changes, noting, “Thanks to Home Rule and the way the laws are written, we do not have the authority to make counties accept what we found or make changes.

“Down in Dorchester and Berkeley counties we had to settle a boundary issue and neither county acted on what we gave them. It was just a waste of time on our end.”

“I plan on getting with Sid to discuss having legislation introduced to establish a county boundary commission that will look into these issues,” Roberts added.

Concentrated Power?

Sen. Cromer told The Nerve he didn’t believe that the law he authored earlier this year “put any undue influence … in the hands of any particular agency.”

In his interview with The Nerve, Rainwater, the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office director, said under the new law, Geodetic Survey staff would “normally talk to Bobby (Bowers) and would bring me the final recommendation” in a county boundary dispute.

“It would be my call to do this,” Rainwater said.

The law says that the Geodetic Survey section is “the appropriate instrument to vest with the necessary authority to resolve county boundary issues,” noting that the “date of the SCGS director’s cover letter is the date the revised boundaries take effect.”

Rainwater pointed out the law allows any party who disagrees with his agency’s decision to file an appeal with the S.C. Administrative Law Court. The law says that when “all portions of a county boundary are resolved,” the Geodetic Survey section “shall prepare a unique boundary description for counties with boundaries affected by the operation of this section and forward that description in a form suitable to the General Assembly to amend county boundaries as described in Chapter 3, Title 4.”

The Legislature also on its own could “adjust or otherwise clarify existing county boundaries,” under the law.

The S.C. Constitution (Article 7, Section 7), allows the General Assembly to alter county lines “at any time,” but only after receiving a two-thirds of the votes cast by the qualified electors of the “territory proposed to be taken from one County and given to another.”

Asked if the new law conflicts with the Legislature’s constitutional authority, Rainwater, an attorney and formerly the chief economist and assistant general counsel to the BCB, replied: “No, the boundaries are set (by the General Assembly). We’re trying to determine where those boundaries actually are.”

Murphy described the new law as a “haphazard bill.”

“Bobby Bowers has been given the authority to change county lines,” she said. “Because Bobby Bowers created this new law, this allows them to do the same thing to others. That’s wrong.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.