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Editorial: We shouldn't have to ask why SC disabilities (or any) director was canned

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The board of the S.C. Department of Disabilities and Special Needs fired Director Mary Poole last week without explanation. At top, Ms. Poole addresses the board at the last meeting for which the agency provided video, in March. At bottom, from left, are Ms. Poole, former Charleston County Administrator Jennifer Miller and former State Accident Fund Director Amy Cofield.

We've been here before. The head of a government agency fired without a bit of explanation, the firers hiding behind a hole in the state’s Freedom of Information Act that allows them to have private discussions about letting go of employees.

This time it’s the director of the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, a wholly unglamorous agency that you might not have heard of unless you have a loved one who needs its help, in which case it’s a vital resource.

The agency, which serves South Carolinians with brain and spinal injuries, autism and other intellectual disabilities, has had more than its share of problems. But beyond a COVID outbreak at a regional facility it operates and a federal audit that apparently predates her hiring, it looked to the outside world as though things had been settling down since Mary Poole became director 19 months ago.

Then seemingly out of nowhere — over the objection of the board chairman and to the surprise of the state senator who works most closely with it — the part-time board voted 5-1 last week to fire Ms. Poole.

Maybe she needed to be let go. Maybe she didn’t. Beyond board member David Thomas telling The Post and Courier’s Seanna Adcox it was heartbreaking but necessary and Ms. Poole telling Charleston’s WCSC-TV she did nothing wrong and she turned down an invitation to resign rather than being fired, nobody’s talking.

Sort of like nobody’s talking, a year later, about why the Charleston County Council paid County Administrator Jennifer Miller nearly a quarter-million dollars to go away. And like nobody talks so many times when local officials and even state agency directors are suddenly gone.

What’s routinely ignored by the officials doing the firing is that state law doesn’t require them to have these discussions about removing employees in private; it allows them to. And it in no way prevents them from explaining their reasoning after a secret discussion. But what’s underappreciated in the public is that even when there is no executive session, there’s also nothing in state law that requires them to explain their actions.

We understand why boards and councils don’t want to tell us why they let people go.

Look no further than what happened when Gov. Henry McMaster told us he fired State Accident Fund Executive Director Amy Cofield because of a contract her agency entered into with her husband: Within days, she had hired an attorney who wrote to the governor threatening to sue if she wasn't reinstated.

It’s a bizarre demand, which either misunderstands or intentionally tries to mislead about the law that, appropriately, allows him to remove the director of the agency for any reason or no reason. And we mean that literally: A governor can fire the heads of most state agencies simply because he doesn’t like the way they’re doing their job. Technically, he could fire them because, say, he didn’t like the way they dress.

But it’s still a potential lawsuit, which the governor’s office will have to spend public resources defending in court. That's something part-time board members are not anxious to have to do, not just because they don’t want to incur that sort of expense — particularly when they oversee an agency that’s struggling to stretch dollars to do the important work it needs to do — but also because most decent people dislike confrontation.

Government transparency doesn't mean just holding meetings in public and turning over records upon request. It means explaining to the public what you're doing and why you're doing it.

What the board members of the disabilities agency overlook — what too many elected and appointed officials overlook — is that even though the law allows them to discuss sensitive information in private, they still have an obligation to be forthcoming with the public. It’s that every single secret further erodes the public confidence in its government. It’s that secrecy begets suspicion: Did they have a legitimate reason to fire the director, or was she resisting the unwise or self-serving or even illegal things the board was pushing her to do? We do not have any information that would lead us to believe such nefarious motivations came into play, but as long as the board remains silent, we can’t rule it out.

Another overlooked fact is that with a few exceptions — some of which make sense, some of which absolutely do not (see: Santee Cooper) — the governor also can fire the thousands of people he appoints to part-time governing boards, including the board of the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs. That means the governor is — appropriately — in charge of those agencies.

Mr. McMaster has spent his entire public career as an advocate of open government. He can and should instruct the board members that they need to tell the public why they acted. He can and should make it clear to everybody he appoints to governing boards that he expects them to be upfront with the public about what they’re doing and why. And when people refuse to do this, he needs to replace them — and make sure everybody knows that’s why he replaced them.

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