Charleston County Attorney Joe Dawson earns $400,000 a year, and some council members think that’s too much for the job. It’s a reasonable point of view.
Unfortunately, the discussion failed to advance last week at the committee level. That should be viewed, however, as only a temporary setback by councilmen who are asking for a higher level of accountability.
As noted in a letter on this page today from Greg Vanderwerker, who attended the meeting, Councilman Joe Qualey was not able to get a majority vote on a proposal that would make the county attorney answerable to the county administrator, to provide for greater oversight.
Nor was he able to get a change in committee rules that would allow this issue, and others, to advance to council without a majority vote.
In each instance, councilmen Qualey and Dickie Schweers voted in favor and councilmen Teddie Pryor, Henry Darby and Elliott Summey were opposed.
It is reasonable to question whether a majority vote should be needed at the committee level for council to have the opportunity for a separate review. After all, council rules state: “All matters, excluding emergency matters, shall first be referred to a standing committee for recommendation before council may take any vote or action thereon.”
A recommendation can be favorable or unfavorable. The rule doesn’t specify that a committee majority has to endorse an idea for the full council to review it. But that’s how the rule is currently interpreted.
Hence Mr. Qualey’s effort to change the rule.
There is still the option of a Finance Committee discussion. And it could be decisive, since Finance is a committee of the whole.
That discussion should include Mr. Dawson’s substantial compensation as county attorney. His counterpart in Richland County, for example, makes less than half what Mr. Dawson receives under his contract with the county. The Richland attorney is a full-time employee of the county, a fact that suggests a similar arrangement could cut legal costs for Charleston County.
Council also should look at the overall expense of the county attorney’s office. That figure tops $1 million in Charleston County, compared with $658,083 in Greenville County.
And it should include a review of Mr. Dawson’s ongoing administration of the county’s solid waste program. Mr. Dawson receives $90,000 for those duties, described by Councilman Schweers as “a part time job.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Dawson was granted an 18-month contract extension for that work in November.
That figure, incidentally, doesn’t cover all the county’s legal expenses related to the solid waste program. An additional $41,812 has been allocated to the county attorney’s office for legal work.
Maybe a majority of council believes that the compensation package for the attorney doesn’t warrant review. Maybe they believe that it’s a good idea to give Mr. Dawson another hefty paycheck to administer the solid waste department.
If they do, they should be willing to say so publicly, and cast their vote accordingly. Hiding behind a narrow interpretation of committee rules won’t advance the goal of open debate.
Those members of council who support a higher level of accountability shouldn’t be deterred. They should insist on a full, open-door discussion at the Finance Committee, secure in the knowledge that many of their taxpaying constituents want answers, too.