Ford claims co-op discriminates

Robert Ford

Berkeley Electric Cooperative is developing a reputation for poor customer service and discrimination toward its minority workers, Sen. Robert Ford charged in a scathing letter he sent to the utility.

Ford charges that the co-op avoids promoting African-Americans in leadership roles, overlooks black males with required credentials, does not offer equal pay based on salary scales and performance evaluations, has no compassion for customers and does not offer a mediator for employee grievances.

The co-op responded that it takes the Charleston Democrat's claims seriously and looks forward to meeting with him.

"The cooperative wishes to assure its members that it will give its full attention to resolving any problems which are proven to exist," Berkeley Electric said in a statement to The Post and Courier, which obtained a copy of Ford's Sept. 15 letter.

The Moncks Corner-based utility serves more than 80,000 households and businesses in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties.

Ford said he is not seeking a hostile encounter with the utility, but he has been fielding complaints against the co-op for eight months.

"Some people just forget they need to be diversified," Ford said.

The letter appears also to be signed by state Reps. Wendell Gilliard of Charleston and Joe Jefferson of Pineville, both Democrats.

Gilliard said he signed the letter and is looking for a positive outcome, but Jefferson said the signature on the letter is not his.

"I never signed it," Jefferson said. "To have someone put my name on a letter that I know nothing about disturbs me greatly, and I am very much offended. I normally call heads of agencies and make an appointment to talk with them if there is a concern. That's how I handle things in Berkeley County."

Jefferson said he has not heard any complaints about the utility from his constituents.

Ford said he did not sign Jefferson's name on the letter, and Gilliard said he does not know how Jefferson's signature ended up on the letter.

"When I got it back, his name was on there signed," Ford said. "I didn't question it."

Ford went on to say that people shouldn't run for office if they are not willing to help their constituents.

"When people cry for help, you are supposed to be there for them," he said. "If you don't want to get involved, you should not be elected."

Ford and Gilliard expect to meet with key co-op leaders to seek a resolution to the situation.

The senator also said he was concerned about South Carolina's ability to keep discrimination in check with the state and federal government devoting less resources to the cause. For example, the state Human Affairs Commission saw its total budget shrink from $2.9 million in 2006 to $1.8 million now.

Ford said he is concerned about the budget cuts to the commission. For some, an employer and consumer watchdog is all they have to turn to for recourse when they're mistreated, Ford said.

"They have nowhere else to go," he said. "We don't know how we're going to get them back on track."

Ralph Haile, acting commissioner for Human Affairs, said the agency is trying to bounce back from its deep budget cuts and vigorously pursue discrimination cases through public outreach, training and education.

The agency's mission is to eliminate and prevent discrimination in employment, housing and public services.

Haile declined to speak about a specific situation, but he wanted the public to know the service was available to them.

"Thank goodness the Legislature saw the wisdom to give us a new life, so that we can be vigilant," Haile said. "We want to take South Carolina into the 21st century and eradicate discrimination and prevent it if we can."