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County Council, January 31

Reflections on changing the form of County Government
A DNA lab for the County? Unqualified audit opinion for Fiscal 2007
Warwick Jones

We learned at lot at yesterday’s Finance Committee meeting. Council was not considering new ordinances but hearing presentations that relate to possible future initiatives. A member of the faculty of USC’s Institute of Public Service and Policy Research spoke of the different forms of local government which were possible in SC and open to Charleston County. A spokesman for the Sheriffs Department told of the need for a DNA testing laboratory and a representative of the Low County Housing Trust spoke of the non profit’s success in providing “affordable housing”.

Compliments on staff ability and efficiency
But first the annual audit. As has become usual, the outside auditors gave an unqualified opinion as to the County’s fiscal accounts. This means there were no discrepancies found in the accounts. A spokesman for Dixon Hughes PLLC, the auditor, said that the County was given a Certificate of Excellence in Financial Reporting by the national Government Finance Offices Association for reporting in Fiscal 2007. This was the 19th time the County had received the award. The spokesman also complimented the County. He said that his firm audited many municipalities and he wished that all had the efficiency and ability of the County’s staff.

Should the Council Chairman be elected by citizens?
The presentation on the options available to the County for its form of government arose from a request by Council member Mc Keown over a year ago. At that time he was unhappy at the County’s form of government and opined that an elected-at-large, and full-time Chairman would be a better alternative .

After the presentation by Mr. Dennis Lambries of the USC, it seemed that few Council members were really interested in change. The disinterest may reflect the fact that a change could require new State legislation, a referendum, and approval by the Department of Justice.

Four types of government possible
What Mr. Lambries had to say may be well known to many. In summary, he said that the present basis of local government stemmed from legislation introduced in 1975 which limited the forms of local government to 5. Subsequent legal action reduced the number to 4. These are:

1 Council. Council has all the administrative and legislative power. It consists of 3 to 12 members. Because there is no full time dedicated administrator, this form is usually applied in small municipalities.

2 Supervisor. This is the “strong mayor, weak council” concept such as the City of Charleston’s. The administrator is elected “at large”. He has full responsibility for administration. Council has an overseeing role and shapes policy. Only 4 Counties has this form

3 Administrator. This is the system adopted by the County. The Administrator is hired by Council and is responsible to the Council. The Chairman of Council is elected from the Council members and is the conduit in many respects of policy between the Council and the Administrator. This form was used by most Counties in the State.

4 Manager. This is similar to 3 but differs in that the Auditor and Treasurer may be appointed, not elected.

Some sympathy for Council member’s request
At the end of the discussion, Council member Mc Keown lamented that it seemed that he was the only member interested in change. This was not true. Council members such as Schweers, Bostic and perhaps Chairman Scott had sympathy for the points made by the Council member, but they seemed unsure whether any of the alternatives would be better.

Council member McKeown suggested that County citizens would be better represented if they had a Chairman elected “at large”. The Chair would represent all of the country’s constituents. Council members are elected from single districts and their perspectives would tend to be from these districts rather than County wide, he said. Some members such as Inabinett and Pryor argued that although Council members were elected from single districts, they still had the whole County’s interest at heart. Both these members wanted no change to the present system.

Could a good politician make a good administrator?
Mr. Dumfries also said that problem with an elected mayor or chairman was that political considerations may over ride administrative actions. Could a good politician make a good administrator? And as a Council member observed, the present form of County government allowed the Council to fire a poor administrator. If the administrator were elected, the Council could do little.

In the banter that followed the presentation, Chairman Scott indicated that he did not plan to run for the Chair next year. This prompted Council member Bostic to suggest that he would be helpful to Council from his position in Columbia, a retort that was greeted by laughter and shrugs. But who knows?

Seeming urgent need for a DNA lab
Most of us know what a crucial role DNA testing can have in determining the identity of individuals. It is used extensively in criminal investigations and has proved very reliable. So you would think that this tool is available to all law enforcement agencies. Well it is, in a sense, but after the presentation by a member of the County Sheriff’s Forensic Center, you wonder whether the law makers of this state are serious about crime prevention.

At issue was a Federal Grant for which the Sheriff’s Office wanted to apply. The grant of $500,000 would be used to partially fund setting up a DNA lab in Charleston County. The cost of the lab was estimated at $1.5 million and the annual running cost estimated at $844,000.

Surprising length of time to get test results
Nobody disputed the importance and accuracy of DNA testing. The surprise was the length of time for a police department to receive test results. It could range from 6 months to 5 years. This was far too long. Innocent people could be incarcerated over this period and guilty walking the streets, free to harm others.

The root of the problem is that there are only 2 DNA labs in SC. One is run by Richland County and does very little analysis for other municipalities. The other is run by SLED which despite expansion in the last 3 years, still has a waiting period 6 months to 5 years for the provision of test results. The 6 month period relates to analysis of simple swabs. If underwear or bedclothes need to be analyzed, the periods could be much longer. If a DNA lab were located in the County, testing would be much faster, a matter of days, not months.

Council member Thurmond who was a public prosecutor agreed with the spokesman. He noted that all the legal procedure attending the taking of evidence added much to the time of bringing together a court case.

Where is the private sector?
Council member Schweers wondered why the private sector was not involved in this.
Council member McKeown suggested that as all of the municipalities in the County could use the lab, why shouldn’t they help pay for it. This was an unfair question to ask the spokesman. The Sheriff believes that the County should make free to all municipalities the services his department provides and recover the costs through County sources. But ultimately, it will be up to the County to decide such as issue, not the Sheriff.

Council unanimously agreed to apply for the grant, but some more serious questions are likely about costs and funding if the request is granted. We doubt that Council will stand in the way of a new lab, but it will want to see if there are options in setting it up.

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