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Richland County ordered to pay $73,000 in attorney fees in case of fired administrator

Gerald Seals (2020_10_9 copy) (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)

Former Richland County Council Administrator Gerald Seals speaks at a council meeting in 2017. A judge has ordered the county to pay $73,000 in attorney's fees in a case related to Seals' firing in 2018. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — A judge has ordered Richland County to pay more than $73,000 in attorney's fees in the public records case surrounding the firing of the former county administrator.

Circuit Judge Jocelyn Newman already ruled in October 2020 that the County Council violated state open-meetings law when it voted during a 2018 private session to approve a nearly $1 million settlement for fired county administrator Gerald Seals.

Columbia attorney Joe McCulloch sued the county on behalf of a local businessman after that vote, saying the process had violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Now Newman says the county must cover McCulloch's litigation expenses since he prevailed in the case, which dragged on for more than two years.

County Council acknowledged, in March that it had erred in its vote on Seals' settlement. Then the council formally reapproved the same deal, this time following the proper procedure.

“Additionally, the county regrets FOIA errors that occurred in the original vote on the settlement agreement and wishes Mr. Seals well in his future endeavors,” the motion read by councilman Overture Walker said.

Still, the county had fought having to pay the additional attorney costs.

Seals was fired after two years in office amid an ongoing spat with council over his plans for the Richland Renaissance, a $144 million project to upgrade county facilities, including a new courthouse. The county still owns empty anchor stores at Columbia Place Mall as part of the proposed project.

The deal was further mired in controversy after it was revealed that former councilwoman and Seals ally Dalhi Myers traded text messages with Seals during the settlement talks, telling him at one point, “Don’t counter small or reasonable. Go big.” The texts were made public in the lawsuit filed by McCulloch.

Reach Jessica Holdman at jholdman@postandcourier.com. Follow her @jmholdman on Twitter.

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