News. Brief.: Steyer, Biden feud on debate stage over Harpootlian’s remarks

Harpootlian Steyer (copy) (copy)

Members of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus look on Wednesday as state Sen. Dick Harpootlian speaks to reporters in the Statehouse lobby about his controversial comments on work by their chairman for Tom Steyer's presidential campaign.

A dispute between South Carolina lawmakers over payments to one of them from a presidential campaign briefly became the center of attention during a nationally televised debate Feb. 7 in New Hampshire. Businessman Tom Steyer personally called on former Vice President Joe Biden to disavow comments from state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a prominent Biden supporter, who last chastised Steyer for paying state Rep. Jerry Govan more than $43,000 to serve as a senior adviser on his campaign. In a tweet and an interview with The Post and Courier on Feb. 5, Harpootlian referred to Steyer as “Mr. Moneybags” and suggested he had purchased the endorsement of Govan, the chairman of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus. Several members the Black Caucus then held a news conference, spearheaded by longtime Harpootlian foe state Rep. Todd Rutherford, who called Harpootlian’s comments racist and demanded Biden repudiate them. Harpootlian made no mention of Govan’s race and insists he would gladly make the same comments about any white lawmakers if he learned they had similarly been paid by a campaign. Then, on the debate stage, Steyer elevated the issue into the national spotlight, calling Harpootlian “one of the leaders of Joe Biden’s South Carolina campaign.” — Jamie Lovegrove, The Post and Courier

4 state representatives walk out of judicial election assembly, calling it a ‘sham’

Four state lawmakers stormed out of a judicial election assembly in protest Feb. 5, calling the selection of judges without formal roll call votes a “sham” that violates South Carolina’s constitution. State Reps. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson; Josiah Magnuson, R-Spartanburg; Stewart Jones, R-Laurens; and Adam Morgan, R-Greenville, denounced the Legislature’s long-held practice of electing judges by simple voice votes that don’t record the stance of individual lawmakers. The practice is just one part of the unusual, secrecy-shrouded selection process for state judges that minimizes public input and accountability, The Post and Courier and ProPublica revealed in a joint investigation last year. The four protesting lawmakers said the state constitution requires the election of judges be on the record, necessitating a roll call that documents the vote of each lawmaker. In a Facebook live video, the four legislators called the election a farce and said they would not participate unless reforms were made. The elections then proceeded without them.  “We’ve got to have a judicial selection process that is legal, that is constitutional and that is moral, and right now we have none of those,” Hill says. — Joseph Cranney and Fleming Smith, The Post and Courier

Columbia City Council wants to shorten deal with private water line company

The City of Columbia is negotiating a shorter contract for an at-times controversial arrangement in which it endorses a private company that insures exterior water and sewer lines at residents’ homes, and gets paid a percentage of the private company’s sales. For the past five years the City of Columbia has endorsed water and sewer line service plans from HomeServe USA. The private company paid Columbia $55,000 up front, and pays the city 7 percent on policy payments. City water and sewer customers are responsible for the maintenance and repair of exterior water lines from their home to the meter, and for sewer lines from their home to the property line. HomeServe offers insurance plans — $60 a year on exterior water service lines and $108 per year on exterior sewer/septic lines — for certain repairs to those lines. The 7 percent the city collects on the payments is put into a resident assistance program that helps low- and fixed-income citizens with their water and sewer bills. The city has had a five-year contract with the Connecticut-based HomeServe on the deal, which began in 2015. The contract calls for an optional five-year renewal. However, after a push from at-large Councilman Howard Duvall — who has long been critical of the arrangement because of what he sees as deceptive marketing — Columbia City Council recently voted to pursue a two-year renewal on the arrangement, rather than five years. — Chris Trainor

Tattoo parlor blocked from opening on Columbia’s Main Street by state health ruling

In a clash between the traditional and the modern, a state health agency has blocked a tattoo parlor that is seeking to open in Columbia’s central business district, citing proximity to the nearby historic First Baptist Church. Ophidian Tattoo has sought to open in Columbia’s Arcade Mall retail center, but the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control ruled the parlor’s chosen site was within 1,000 feet of the entrance to the church, a required distance in state law. The agency sent Ophidian a letter saying there would be no further DHEC review of the decision, meaning the question would not be put before its board. Ophidian had 30 days to file an appeal to the state Administrative Law Court. The parlor has not decided whether to go forward with such a move, said its attorney Tommy Lavender of Nexsen Pruet. Matt Kennell, CEO of the partnership, called DHEC’s decision a disappointment and praised the owners of Ophidian, Shannon Purvis Barron and Chelsea Owen, as good community citizens. “Clearly, DHEC needs to review its regulations and be more up to modern times,” Kennell said. The parlor’s owners have stated they are more than 1,000 feet from the main entrance of the First Baptist Church, whose complex takes up much of a block on nearby Sumter Street. — Mike Fitts, The Post and Courier 

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