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Editorial: We're owed an explanation for big payout to Charleston County administrator

Jennifer Miller headshot (copy)

Jennifer Miller was promoted to Charleston County Administrator in 2017, but left in January before the end of her 3-year contract. (Provided)

We don’t know why Charleston County Council felt it was a good idea to give its administrator, Jennifer Miller, a $221,649 check on her way out last month — a sum more than what she would have been paid had she stayed on the job until her contract was up in June.

But we should.

County Council members are saying very little about Ms. Miller’s Jan. 7 departure, apparently for two reasons. First, as reporter David Slade noted, her severance contract was designed to ensure she would not sue the county. Second, some may genuinely not know. “I wasn’t necessarily on board with having her leave,” Councilman Dickie Schweers told Mr. Slade. “There was some urgency that wasn’t really explained to me.”

Neither reason is acceptable. Governments have no business agreeing to secrecy clauses — especially ones designed to hide information that could put the government at risk of losing a lawsuit. Letting the public know what officials did wrong — particularly elected officials — is far more important than fending off a legitimate legal action.

The unanswered questions certainly don’t give us much reassurance about how County Council is doing its job, and the council owes the public an explanation for entering into this agreement. Perhaps there were good reasons, but until the county provides an explanation, we have to assume there weren’t. Instead, we are left with the impression that individual council members did something that made them fear they would lose a lawsuit.

Perhaps Ms. Miller’s falling out of favor with her bosses stemmed from some personality conflict or minor disagreements that don’t have any significant effect on county residents’ daily life. Or perhaps it was linked to ongoing fallout from a number of larger controversies that have dogged (and in some cases, continue to dog) the county. Taxpayers will be wrongly kept in the dark as long as county officials keep this a secret.

This is just the most recent in a string of controversies of County Council’s making. Others include:

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• Charleston County revived the controversial extension of Interstate 526, which promises to be by far the most expensive project ever undertaken by a local government in South Carolina. The county is being sued because of its plan to use half-cent sales tax money to build it, even though the project was omitted from the 2016 sales tax ballot question.

• Its new recycling center was delayed because of an internal decision to redesign the facility in a way that County Council later would have to reverse, adding delay and extra cost to the project.

• Charleston County still is trying to recover from its catastrophically bad handling of a public-private deal to renovate the former Charleston Naval Hospital for a social services hub, a debacle still expected to cost county taxpayers more than $10 million.

Council Chairman Elliott Summey, who has come under fire recently for using political pull to land a $300,000-plus job (including car allowance) as the new CEO of the Charleston County Aviation Authority, had this to say about Ms. Miller’s departure: “We threw her a party. … Jennifer worked really hard for us for 34 years and did a really good job.”

If Mr. Summey is correct, why didn’t he and his colleagues let her stay on for five more months, until her contract was up? At least there are no allegations of County Council members trading their votes for sex with strippers, as in Richland County. But those allegations surfaced after Richland County Council paid its outgoing Administrator Gerald Seals $984,000. On the other hand, several significant conflicts between Mr. Seals and council members were well known before he left.

If Charleston County Council members are unable to provide the public an explanation, then they owe taxpayers a $221,649 refund (easily achievable if they all declined their salary for a year). If such an explanation doesn’t appear, then it’s a good question for voters to keep in mind as they go to the polls this year to fill four of council’s nine seats.

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