CityWatch: I Like Charles Austin, But Not On the Elections Commission

Kevin Fisher in 2018

Kevin Fisher

“According to a news release from the Richland County Legislative Delegation, the five Elections Commission nominees are: former Columbia police chief and city manager Charles Austin…” — Free Times, Mar. 22

First things first: I like Charles Austin personally, recognize and respect his historic achievement as Columbia’s first African-American police chief and applaud his service in that position.

But Austin’s follow-up tenure as city manager was a disaster. Of course, so was city government as a whole during the Coble-Cromartie era of incompetence without consequence, so you certainly can’t blame it all on him.

For example, it wasn’t Austin who decided to start transferring millions of dollars away from the city’s water and sewer fund every year, which ultimately became a $100 million-plus diversion that led to the system crumbling beneath us and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency imposing $750 million in repairs under a federal consent decree. The result is water rate hikes of 38 percent over the past decade, with much more to come.

While Austin can’t be blamed for that and other policy disasters implemented by City Council, he was in fact responsible for the unbelievable series of administrative and oversight debacles that both embarrassed the city and cost taxpayers millions during his time as city manager.

After Council for years ignored the city’s management problems under Austin, it all came to a head in 2009. The final straw in a long line of embarrassing revelations occurred when it was revealed the city had been paying the same bills multiple times, and doing so for years.

As reported then in The State: “Columbia’s accounting troubles were so extensive that it unknowingly paid the same bills twice, sometimes three times, for at least four years.”

And it didn’t end there. The State went on to report that an external auditor outlined other major problems with the city’s financial management, including “not reconciling the city’s bank statements, one of the most basic accounting functions.”

Further, the city was forced to admit that its employee health insurance plan was in crisis, announcing that it had been “unaware” of $18 million in accumulated benefits costs for the program.

There were major hiring and firing problems as well (including both the police chief and CFO positions), with short tenures and big payouts due to improper dismissals or poorly executed contracts.

For me, it was too much. Way too much. My personal admiration for him aside, I wrote a column on Jan. 14, 2009 entitled “It’s Time for Austin To Go.” A few weeks later, he did.

I was glad to see Chief Austin resurface as a professor at Benedict College, as well as continuing in his role as pastor at Village of Hope Fellowship Church. Those are good things and he is a good man.

But he is not, in my view, someone we should be putting on the Richland County Elections Commission.

Why? Because with the endless series of mistakes that have been the hallmark of that body since the 2012 election debacle until today, the last thing we need is to appoint people to that oversight role who have a history of problems with oversight of other public agencies.

I can’t imagine how that is not obvious to the Richland County Legislative Delegation. How can they possibly think this inspires public confidence? And public confidence is desperately needed at that agency.

Further, I think appointing folks in their 70s to the Elections Commission is both short-sighted and tone deaf. Ever heard of that “new blood” thing?

And based on how the “old blood” performed on the Elections Commission from 2012 until it was wiped out recently by Gov. Henry McMaster’s executive order firing the entire board, I’d say some younger, fresher perspective is in order.

But instead, Richland County legislators turned to another name from the past, and one with a checkered past at that when it comes to oversight of a government agency.

Again, I like Charles Austin. But surely in all of Richland County there is someone who would bring new energy rather than old baggage to the Elections Commission.

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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