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County Council Meeting November 16

A fractious meeting
Last meeting for the Chairman
Warwick Jones

There was something troubling about last night's meeting. It was the undeserved humiliation of the County Attorney Mr. Joe Dawson as the Council discussed his remuneration and worth. It was not that Mr. Dawson was doing a bad job. No, all agreed he had done an excellent job. Yes, he had worked according to a contract drawn up by the County. But he is paid too much and his remuneration needs to be cut, at least that was the implication of what was before Council. The issue generated a heated discussion but in the final vote, the move for change was defeated.

Attorney is well paid
There is no denying that Mr. Dawson is well paid, at last in comparison with his peers in other Counties in South Carolina. He made $241,577 in 2005 and $292,269 in 2004. Remuneration this year is likely to be comparable or above that of 2005. Unlike many other County attorneys, he is not on a straight salary. He is employed on the basis of an annual retainer, and paid an hourly rate for the time he spends on County matters. He charges $125 an hour for his services and is free to take on other clients. It so happens that County business has taken up much of his time and he has billed the County accordingly.

Issue has arisen before
Mr. Dawson's remuneration was an issue before Council some months ago (See County Council meeting, December 1, 2006). His original contract allowed him to charge $125 an hour but it seemed that the Council in 2003 unilaterally decided to reduce it to $105 an hour. The present Council, with members elected in 2004 from single member districts, changed it back to $125 an hour in the belief that the previous Council had acted unjustly in its action.

Make employee or impose restraints!
Council member Fava instigated the move last night and the discussion was very similar to that of the meeting last year. The Council member suggested that the County Attorney position be changed to an "in house employee" position subject to all County personnel policies. Alternatively, the present system should be retained but with considerable restraints in relation to a number of items including the hours billed, rates, and charges for fees associated with bond issues. Council member Fava also requested a special assessment of the workload, staffing, and operating expenses of the County’s legal office, and a comparison made with other South Carolina counties.

Why wasn't the issue raised years ago?
The question was raised a number of times last night and was not really answered satisfactorily. If some Council members feel Mr. Dawson is so highly paid, why has it taken so long for the issue to be raised? It was a previous Council that hired Mr. Dawson, and it set the terms of his retention. Yet there was no question raised publicly about his high remuneration in those years.

There have been some suggestions of racial overtones to the timing, something denied by Council member Condon and Chairman Stavrinakis who supported Council Member Fava last night. Although he opposed the change, Council member Darby strongly expressed the view that Council member Fava was not motivated by racial issues. But there is no doubt that the suspicion of racial overtones lingers.

Our comments
We have two comments. Firstly, the law of South Carolina states that in the Charleston County form of government, the Administrator is responsible for hiring and firing the County Attorney. Presumably this is an attempt to make the Attorney somewhat independent of the Council. Could it be that Council has been restrained in the past because of this seeming independence?

Secondly, isn't it possible for the County Administrator to help reduce the charges of the County Attorney? If the County attorney is retained on an hourly rate and the overall charges are growing too high, shouldn.t a second senior attorney be hired as staff? The new attorney could handle much of what Mr. Dawson is doing, leaving only the more important issues to be handed by Mr. Dawson. If this won't work and somebody of Mr. Dawson's experience and capability is needed to handle all these issues, then there should be no need to question his present compensation. But we would also note that the $125 an hour rate charged by Mr. Dawson is low by the standards of other lawyers. The $125 rate may be appropriate when a client such as the County demands so much of his time. But if demand is on a more causal basis, rates of over $200 and hour would be closer to the industry norm.

We are reminded of Oscar Wilde's judgment of a cynic - one who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Mr. Dawson's services may be costly, but who can assess their value? Council member Darby attempted to do this last night when he recounted Mr. Dawson's achievements. He also noted some of the costly failures of Council, such as its fruitless pursuit a property tax cap, the $500 an hour payment to other outside lawyers, and the very high remuneration and fees paid to some others who are providing services for the County. These excesses dwarf those of any alleged excess in relation to Mr. Dawson's remuneration, he said. The County was in danger of having two standards.

Not enough notice
Contention was not confined to the issue of the Mr. Dawson remuneration. It extended to discussion of the Consultants report on the Impact Assessment of the Mark Clark extension. This item was placed on the agenda with very little notice. Council member Pryor objected to any discussion and vote until he and other members of Council had an opportunity to read and consider the report. Chairman Stavrinakis who was responsible in placing the report on the agenda did not agree. Regardless, Council voted to defer the items to the next meeting.

The consultants report is not new and what was before Council last night was the report with the addition of Staff comments on action needed by the Council. We didn't see anything controversial in the recommendations, but we agree with Council member Pryor that if Council is to do its job properly, it needs time to consider items properly.

We don't know why Chairman Stavrinakis was in a hurry to get the item discussed and approved. But last night was his last on County Council. He officially leaves Council on Monday to assume his new role as a Representative in the Lower house in Columbia.

No surprises in Disparity Study

The long awaited Disparity Study was tabled last night. We have not seen the full report, only the Executive Summary and the presentation by the Consultant. MGT of America. But as Mr. Barrett Tolbert remarked, there were no surprises in the report. Mr. Tolbert was hired by the County to develop more minority and women owned business enterprises (M/WBE) utilization. MGT found that M/WBEs were substantially underutilized in the majority of procurement categories (of the County). It also represents substantial evidence of continued barriers to the utilization of M/WBE's in the County's private sector market place.

In the study period between 2002 and 2005, the County spent $157.2 million in all procurement categories of which the County spent $19.3 million or 12.3% with M/WBE's at the prime and subcontractor levels.

MGT made some recommendations, some of which had already been implemented by the County. It suggested amongst other things:
* A program to encourage small business enterprises and that the program be race neutral.
* Aspire to higher and higher goals. It noted the present 10% goal set by the County but this should be shifted upward over time
* Joint Venture policy whereby a contractor should join with another "that did not look like you". This could encourage big firms to join with small firms and develop experience. It also should encourage diversity

High monetary cost of delaying construction of new jail
The timing for the move of the SPCA to its new site and the commencement of the construction of the new jail is critical. As the present SPCA site is that for the new jail, the link is obvious. The County Administrator noted that any delay to construction of the new jail could cost the County $800,000 a month. Considering the very serious overcrowding at the jail, the construction process could not be delayed. The SPCA had not fully wrapped up its move to the new site in North Charleston and there was a question of the whether it could stay within the present timetable. It would be tight but the SPCA said it could and expected to complete all the formalities within a short period and meet the October 31, 2007 deadline to be out of the existing facility. But Council left no doubt that having to choose between accommodating the SPCA or proceeding with the new jail, it would favor the latter.
Chairman resigns to assume new office
Not unexpectedly, Chairman Stavrinakis officially resigns on Monday to assume his new role as a Representative in the Lower house in Columbia. He made a very gracious speech at the close of the Council meeting. Serving on Council for 8 years, he noted the impact on his life of so many that he met while on Council. He specially noted the support of Council member Fava, and ex Council member Wallace, who wisely advised him to leave everything that happened on Council at the door.

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