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Members of the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs commission are appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate. Several of the seats on the commission will remain empty until the Legislature reconvenes in 2020. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

A state commission charged with helping South Carolinians with severe disabilities and special needs, including those with autism and traumatic brain injuries, will remain mostly empty for at least four more months. 

Until then, there aren't enough members on the commission to constitute a majority or take a single vote.

Four of seven seats on the commission are empty, including the seat representing the Charleston area. Commissioners must be appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate. Each commissioner represents a congressional district.

Agency officials have asked the Attorney General's Office if two out of three commissioners constitute a quorum under these circumstances, said Robb McBurney, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Disabilities and Special Needs. Without a quorum of commissioners, the agency can't conduct simple business, such as approving an annual budget or making major purchases. 

The earliest the positions may be filled is in January when the Legislature reconvenes, McBurney said. The 2019-20 spending plan was approved earlier this year, he said. 

"Things that can wait, we'll have to wait on," he said. "We will work through it."

The agency is responsible for developing and funding services for residents with "severe, lifelong disabilities of intellectual disability, autism, traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury," according to its website. The agency's $786 million annual budget is made up of mostly federal money. 

The department has come under scrutiny in recent years for a variety of problems, including its failure to recognize that some local boards were overcharging rent for adults with disabilities and special needs. A 2015 investigation by the state Inspector General’s Office found more than 300 vulnerable adults were overcharged nearly $2 million to live in group homes. 

The agency has also been criticized for its contract with South Carolina Mentor, a private company the department paid to provide services and housing for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults. Under the company's watch, several adults in South Carolina died

The state agency instituted a freeze on new admissions to Mentor facilities in 2016. The freeze had not yet been lifted. 

Eva Ravenel, who lives in Charleston and resigned from the commission this summer, said Mentor, which also operates facilities in other states, has a "terrible scorecard" in South Carolina. 

"I think we’ve had 10 or 11 deaths," said Ravenel, who once served as chairwoman of the disabilities and special needs commission. "I do not have a problem with a private organization if they do a good job. But when you’re taking care of the most vulnerable people? This is one of our worst problems."

Ravenel said the governor's office advised her before she left the commission in June that her position could be filled immediately. 

But after she resigned, she learned that the state Senate would not approve her replacement until next year. 

"I was furious about it," she said. 

Ravenel offered to continue serving until then but was told she couldn't step back on the commission because she had already left. Two other commissioners left the board this summer, too. 

A spokesman for Gov. Henry McMcaster said the governor will have four nominees ready for the Senate to consider when the next legislative session begins in January.

Meanwhile, the term of the commission's chairman has expired. Gary Lemel, who lives in Fort Mill and is one of only three people left on the governing board, is allowed to continue serving as long as the governor hasn't named his replacement, McBurney said. 

Lemel said the vacancies present a problem, but they have not impacted services for vulnerable adults.

"The agency is still providing services. It’s still doing everything it’s supposed to do," said Lemel, an attorney who was appointed to the board in 2014 by former Gov. Nikki Haley. His term technically expired last year. "What it’s impacting is our ability to provide oversight and policy guidance to the executive director."

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Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.