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Bid to toss $1 million settlement to fired Richland County administrator heads to court

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Gerald Seals (copy) (copy)

Former Richland County Council Administrator Gerald Seals (right) speaks at a council meeting in 2017. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — A $1 million settlement that Richland County paid after firing Administrator Gerald Seals should be thrown out because it was decided in secret and voted on by council members who should have recused themselves because of conflicts, according to a court filing. 

A Richland County court will hear arguments Monday on a bid to overturn the 2018 settlement, approved on a 6-5 vote. Columbia businessman William Coggins is asking a judge to toss it. 

The case comes up just as one of the council members who was principally involved, Dalhi Myers, faces a runoff election on Tuesday to retain her seat. Myers, the council's vice chairman, finished neck-and-neck with challenger Cheryl English in the Democratic primary on June 9, both receiving 43 percent of the vote.

The suit alleges that Myers sent improper texts to Seals from inside an executive session meeting about the council's plans, including advising him of a proposed settlement value. After telling him the council was considering a $985,000 proposal, she texted advice, including "or counter for a million," according to texts entered as evidence in the case. 

After the executive session, Myers voted in favor of the settlement. The lawsuit says she should have recused herself.

Attorney Joe McCulloch, representing Coggins, also asserts two other councilmen should not have voted on the settlement because Seals had threatened to release damaging information about their actions while on council or to target them in lawsuits.

Greg Pearce voted for the settlement, while Norman Jackson voted against. Neither are on the council anymore. Pearce didn't seek re-election, and Jackson lost his bid.  

In its defense, Richland County has argued the lawsuit cannot go forward because of the state's protections for office-holders from legal challenges. State law makes lawmakers, including county council members, immune to lawsuits that would draw their decision-making into court, the county has argued.

Citing the pending court case, Seals declined Thursday to comment on the lawsuit's claims. Seals served as Richland County administrator for less than two years.

The suit also argues that a vote was taken during an executive session and without adequate public notice of what the specially called council meeting was about. This was a violation of the state Freedom of Information Act, McCulloch argues.

The lawsuit also argues the $1 million settlement far exceeds what Seals could have expected as severance, since South Carolina is an "at-will" state, which means employees can be fired at any time for any or no reason.

Seals, who was paid $184,000 annually in the job, could expect to collect at most $300,000 from a wrongful dismissal case, McCulloch argues.

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