Politicians Pass Ordinance to Protect Themselves from Lawsuit

October 14, 2014

Inside Insight

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oconee county councilTYRANNY IN THE UPSTATE?

On October 7, 2014, Oconee County Councilmen Paul Corbeil, Reg Dexter, and Joel Thrift abused their power – and taxpayers – once again.

A little background: In June of 2001, a previous County Council entered into a lease agreement with the owners of our local paper, Steve and Jerry Edwards. The lease agreement was basically for the Steve and Jerry to build a hangar at the Oconee Airport, and in return the county would lease it back to them with the condition the they would only pay taxes on their three airplanes for two years. Furthermore, at the end of the two years, taxes would only be paid on the airplanes provided they were in the county for 50 percent of the year by December 31 of each year.

At some point the county tried to tax the Edwardses for the planes based on a memorandum from Brad Norton (the county attorney at the time) to Linda Nix, at the time the county auditor, regarding back taxes owed. In the memorandum, Mr. Norton reminded the auditor that, based on the lease, the Edwardses do not owe the taxes, since the airplanes had not been in Oconee County for more than 50 percent of any given year.

Fast forward to the present. Paul Corbeil recently lost his re-election for County Council seat to Edda Cammick. Edda Cammick was endorsed by the Seneca Journal, owned by Steve and Jerry Edwards. A couple of months later on September 16, 2014, a lawsuit was filed by Oconee County against Steve and Jerry Edwards for back taxes owed on their airplanes on the grounds that the aforementioned lease was never “authorized.”

County Council voted to proceed with the lawsuit, 3 to 2, with Paul Corbeil, Reg Dexter, and Joel Thrift voting “aye” and Wayne McCall and Paul Cain voting “nay.” As owners of the paper, the Steve and Jerry Edwards were not silent regarding the lawsuit, and an article appeared in the Journal expressing their intention to countersue individually against Corbeil, Dexter, and Thrift. (Thrift and Dexter took office in January 2009, and Corbeil took office in August 2009 by special election.)

So why would these three councilmen wait almost six years to file a lawsuit, then be in such a hurry to immediately pass a self-protecting ordinance for themselves at the first mention of a countersuit? Furthermore, the paper supported Corbeil, Dexter, and Thrift for their 2009 election, but did not support them when they ran again. In 2014, the newspaper supported Corbeil’s opposition, Edda Cammick, who in fact won and will begin serving in January, 2015.

Ordinance 2014-24 protects elected officials and county employees from the cost of lawsuits by allowing them to use taxpayer monies from the general funds, Special Revenue Funds, and, if applicable, from a special insurance policy carried by the county for the purpose. The ordinance contains an highly interesting provision: it states that even though the ordinance must receive first reading, second reading, a public hearing, and third and final reading, it will take effect upon of the date of first reading.

The first reading of this ordinance took place October 7 at the county council meeting. The ordinance passed with a vote of 3 to 1 (Councilman Paul Cain was absent). Those voting “aye” – Corbeil, Dexter, and Thrift. Voting “nay” – Wayne McCall.

During the public comment time of the meeting, many citizens stood before the council and demanded that this ordinance not be passed. Several citizens contended Corbeil, Dexter, and Thrift had abused their power, and asked them to resign. Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of the citizens spoke against the passing of the ordinance, the majority of the council did not pay any attention once again to their constituents. Simply put, the passing of the ordinance ensures that council is now protected, and that taxpayers will have to bear all the legal expenses of a likely lawsuit.

What’s most alarming is the precedent this sets. Going forward, any county council can go back, decide to go back on an agreement made by a previous council, then sue whomever they want for back taxes and never be held personally or financially responsible. Corbeil, Dexter, and Thrift have made sure that they and future councilmen are above the law.

Have any other counties in South Carolina passed similar ordinances? We’d love to hear about it.

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