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County Council, May 3

A sorry County meeting
County Attorney “on trial” for earning too much
Warwick Jones

County Attorney Dawson was put on trial last night. Discussion by the Administration Policy/ Rules Committee may have been about arcane procedures – but essentially it was over Mr. Dawson. And what was the charge? He earns too much!

Mr. Dawson is reputed to have been paid about $400,000 last year by the County. About $180,000 came from his “retainer” as County Attorney, $90,000 as payment for managing the Solid Waste Department and the balance from other work outside the normal scope. All of these payments were part of the agreement he has with the County, and no Council member has disputed this. The payments were all legal and “above board”.

We have no problem with the County asking whether its Attorney is paid excessively, or seeking ways to reduce legal and other costs. But last night's action was not the right way. The County has been a willing party to the retention of Mr. Dawson for many years. It also asked Mr. Dawson to manage Solid Waste and agreed to pay him for doing so. And there has been nothing but praise for Mr. Dawson’s efforts in assisting the County. So to put Mr. Dawson on trial, and in front of the public is wrong. And to vilify him and misrepresent some of his actions is reprehensible.

Effectively on the stand last night, Mr.Dawson wasn’t asked to testify or defend himself. Indeed what was it that he had to defend? He took a remuneration that the County had approved. If the remuneration was too high or unjustified, it should be the County on trial, not Mr. Dawson.

Council member Qualey is the Chair of the Administration Policy/ Rules Committee. Other members are Council members Summey, Dawson, Schweers and Chair of Council Pryor. Only these members can vote on Committee issues.

Committee Chair Qualey sought two amendments to the rules governing decisions made by the Committee. Presently if a motion is put before the Committee and it fails to gain approval, the issue dies. If the vote is tied, the Committee may vote to take it to Council with no recommendation. Chair Qualey wanted all issues to go before full Council regardless of the Committee vote. There were also changes proposed as to the procedure for putting items on the agenda of the Administration Policy/ Rules Committee.

There may be some merit in Council member Qualey’s proposals but in our view, the principal objective was to move the issue of County Attorney Dawson to the full Council. In this he failed. The Committee voted against the amendments – Council members Qualey and Schweers for, and Council members Darby, Pryor and Summey against. (Summey was not present for the vote on the second amendment but in our view and considering the nay vote for the first amendment, would have voted nay)

Committee Chair Qualey was clearly not happy about the ways things were going for his proposed amendments and in our view, took steps that became extreme. Perhaps minor, but it is our belief and certainly expressed in “Roberts Rules” that the Chair of meetings should be essentially that. The chair should not intimidate members of its Committee or make statements challenging opponents to come up with reasons that contradict his opinion - which Committee Chair did last night.

What we thought particulalry egregious was the display of an invoice submitted by Mr. Dawson to the County seeking payment for his services. Chairman Qualey, now acting like a lead prosecutor, told his audience that there were no details on this invoice as to the service provided, no mention of the time and hours spent and billed. It was an invoice that would not pass muster in any corporation, he said.

I heard this and said to myself, “How could Joe Dawson get away with this? What was the County doing? Where was the Internal Auditor?”

The explanation came later when I asked Council Chair Pryor about the invoice. The invoice was similar to those submitted every month by the County Attornery for the retainer he is paid. It was simply the yearly retainer, agreed to by Council, divided by 12. It did not need documentation. Chairman Pryor went on to say that when County Attorney does work beyond that which is normal, his invoices are full of details.

If what Chair Pryor says is true, Council member Qualey owes Mr. Dawson an apology. The Council member is a lawyer and should know about the presentation of misleading evidence. He misreprented Mr. Dawson. And as he should have known better, the misrepresentation was that much more egregious.

To his credit, Council Chair Pryor attempted a number of times to stop the public trial of Mr. Dawson and to have the matter discussed outside Council. But Council members Schweers and Qualey were not to be daunted.

Council member Qualey said much more. One claim or inference that got our attention was that Mr.Dawson signed a 2 year extension of the County’s agreement with its Solid Waste consultant without his or Council member Sass’s knowledge. There was a clear inference that Mr. Dawson was exceeding his authority. We don’t know whether Council member Qualey’s allegation or inference is correct or justified but it puzzles us that Mr. Dawson would have such authority. Assuming that the amount in question is substantial, any agreement normally would have to pass Council to be binding. How could he by pass Council?

Perhaps Council member Darby's action will lead to the ultimate defusing of the issue. He declared that he had had enough, and that it was time to move on. He would vote to remove Mr. Dawson as head of Solid Waste immediately. Presumably addressing Council members Qualey and Schweers, he said that if you can get the other votes on Council, you can have mine as well.

We are not sure where this will now go. Whether there will be some moves behind doors to resolve the issue or whether the Finance Committee will deal with it at the next meeting, we don’t know. Judging on their views, Council members Qualey and Schweers would like to see Mr. Dawson's remuneration cut and his Solid Waste duties eliminated immediately. And they will have the support of Council member Darby in regard to the latter. Other Council members might like to see Mr. Dawson out of Solid Waste, but not until a suitable manager is found.

The issue as to whom the County Attorney reports still lingers. Presently he is appointed by Council and reports to the County Chair. Council members Qualey and Schweers want him to report to the Administrator and point to the fact that the majority (70%) of counties in South Carolina have this policy. We would favor reporting to the Chair but agree with Council member Schweers, there are good arguments for both sides of the issue.

Other items disucssed last night at the Finance Committee were:

  1. A request for a grant of $860,000 from the Greenbelt Bank by the Town of Ravenel. The funds were to be used to buy a 6 acre tract in the town which was to be used for festivals etc. The Bank Board unanimously voted against the grant, stating that the cost was too high. It also questioned the valuation of the property. The Finance Committee agreed with the Bank Board and rejected the application.

  2. A request to move on with the Harborview Road widening project was discussed and approved unanimously. The Finance Committee recommended that Staff continue efforts to get approval from the Cities of Charleston and James Island, the SCDOT and the Federal Highway Authority for Plan B and with the addition of a roundabout at the intersection of Harborview Road and Fort Johnson Road. There was also provision for other additions relating to traffic lights, cross walks and speed reductions.

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