2018-04-13 / Government / Neighborhood

Richland County Council fails to follow procedure in the termination of Adminstrator Gerald Seales

By Mike Cox

At the very end of the Apr il 3, Richland County Council meeting, Norman Jackson made a motion to terminate the contract of Richland County Administrator Gerald Seales immediately and appoint Assistant Administrator Branden Madden as acting County Administrator.

The vote was close; 6- 5 in favor, and contentious... and it appears not completely legal. According to South Carolina Statute 49620, anyone serving in a position in a council/administrator type government must be given written notice of termination with specific, valid reasons explained, and five days to respond to the action, in a public hearing if desired.

Richland County’s Council didn’t do that, so they met again April 9, to comply with the law. County Attorney Larry Smith was home sick and unable to attend so Assistant County Attorney Brad Farrar was there to explain the process.

Evidently, this is a rare occurrence in South Carolina; Farrar could only find one precedent to use as guidance. But the statute is clear. The employee can be terminated by a governing body, in this case, the Richland County Council, but they must provide that person specific reasons for the termination and offer him a public hear ing to address those charges.

The hearing must be scheduled between 20 and 30 days and provide the employee ample time to defend his performance. He can’t engage the governing body but can call witnesses to rebut any charges.

After the hearing is complete, another vote is taken and that vote determines the fate of the employee. If the employee in question is not satisfied, he can sue for breach of contract, and a judge will determine whether the charges were worthy of dismissal.

After explanation by Farrar, the questions began. Norman Jackson, who started the entire process, asked why the council couldn’t just fire Seales for “cause.” Greg Pearce candidly admitted he wasn’t aware Statute 49620 existed. Based on other council members’ questions, that was a common circumstance.

There seemed to be confusion as to why the council couldn’t just terminate the contract and be done with this. Most political differences of opinion end with contracts not being renewed or retirements. The statute gives fired employees a process that offers them specific reasons for dismissal and a process for deliberation.

Attorney Vance Bettis, who is more familiar with this type situation, was called to answer a few questions from the council. Bettis immediately referred to the statute as the “name clearing hearing,” and suggested the dismissed employee can make his case in this format, but this doesn’t change things if the governing body still wishes to dismiss the person.

Bettis also reminded the council the process involved doesn’t “force the council to keep the administrator but does force them to pay him” if his fir ing is unjust.

After much discussion, Jim Manning made a motion to dismiss Seales because of rapid turnover of employees, sleeping dur ing work time, and making decisions not authorized by council.

After the unusual action of retiring to executive session to let Attorneys Farrar and Bettis offer advice for a proper dismissal letter, the council reconvened with a cleaned up motion.

Seales is informed of his dismissal with specific reasons identified. He has five days to respond if he wants a public hearing. If not, tonight’s vote is binding; if he desires a hearing, another vote will be taken.

The council retired to executive session a second time to discuss Seales’s replacement and decided to punt on that issue for now. More information will be forthcoming at upcoming council meetings.

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