Questions remain over Chapin hiring process - - Columbia, South Carolina

Questions remain over Chapin hiring process


Chapin officials have no additional documents to answer questions regarding the hiring process for the town's new economic development and communications director. That hiring process was one of the reasons three other council members filed a lawsuit that was dismissed this week.

Karen Owens, the town's new economic development and communications director, told WIS Thursday that the town's response to its questions is complete after several attempts to gather information regarding the town's hiring process before offering the job to Owens.

"As you probably know, the SC Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies to disclose public records upon written request," Owens wrote in an email Thursday. "We have provided the public records in our possession that are responsive to your requests. Additionally, while we are not required to do so, we have also endeavored to answer your questions. We have no additional responsive public records, and therefore, our response is complete."

WIS started its investigation into Chapin's hiring process after receiving tips from viewers. Meanwhile, council members filed a lawsuit last month against the town mayor after performing actions that a majority of council members said violated town ordinances and state law. A judge dismissed that lawsuit Tuesday.

New job in Chapin

A week prior to officially taking office, the town's former Mayor Stan Shealy and council at the time held a special meeting to address former town attorney David Knight's concerns. Knight said Wilson was trying to schedule a special meeting to take his oath of office and already extended an offer to a Chapin Chamber of Commerce employee for an economic development and communications director job.

In December, town council unanimously approved the town did not have a line item in the $1.3 million budget for the new economic development job and did not approve the position.

Knight later resigned as town attorney after 27 years and is now the town utility attorney, which is the position the lawsuit states Wilson refuses to pay.

At a special Jan. 15 town council meeting, council unanimously approved to hire an interim attorney and advertise for the economic development and communications director position in a newspaper or online.

WIS did obtain a copy of the ad for the job, which was published online Jan. 16 on According to the town's policy for job vacancy announcements, open jobs should be posted at Town Hall and in local newspapers. In addition, the job announcement should stay open for two weeks minimum.

Ten days later on Jan. 26, Wilson sent an email to council members and the town clerk announcing he offered the economic development and communications director job to Karen Owens.

"Approximately a week ago, I emailed each of you the resumes and a summary grid that identified the experience and qualifications of each person interested in the job," Wilson wrote in the email. "You had a chance to peruse each resume and forward your input. I received no feedback from anyone. From that, I assume each of you acknowledge that Ms. Karen Owens is the best qualified candidate for the job. In an effort to move forward with this matter, I wanted to let each of you know that Karen Owens was offered the position (Dr. of Communication & Economic Development) today and has accepted the job."

Owens started working for Chapin on Feb. 10 and has a $45,000 salary. Wilson moved $68,400 from different departments in the town's 2014 fiscal year budget to accommodate about $60,000 for Owens' job to also pay for insurance, taxes, expenses and a $500 bonus.

In his decision, Judge Cooper quoted a town ordinance that gives the mayor authority to transfer funds between departments even after the budget is approved. However, in a different town ordinance for administration, it states compensation for all employees must be approved by the mayor and council and incorporated into the town's budget.

Eleven people applied for the job, and WIS got application copies of who the town identified as the top three candidates. One of the three is Karen Owens and the other two include a Columbia businessman and a Connecticut resident.

WIS reached out to the other two applicants. The Columbia businessman said he was contacted by someone with the town, but he decided to not move forward with the job after doing research to find the job was previously offered to Owens in December. The Connecticut applicant said he did not receive a call, letter or email from anyone with the town of Chapin concerning his application or requesting an interview.

Town policy also states that a selection official should have been chosen to review all applications and check references prior to hiring and to interview the candidates alongside the mayor. WIS could not locate documentation that this has taken place and has requested such information from town officials.

Owens, who handles all media and Freedom of Information requests, sent WIS an email Thursday stating "all the necessary steps with regards to interviews and reference checks were taken to ensure a fair process." She also provided a hiring matrix that lists all 11 applicants that applied with marks by the qualifications that candidate carries. However, nowhere does it list whether interviews took place before offering the job to Owens.

Council lawsuit dismissed

Mayor James "Skip" Wilson started as Chapin's mayor Jan. 7 when he was sworn into office at the town's first meeting for the year. Along with Wilson, new councilman Greg White also took his oath of office. Both men were defendants in the lawsuit filed last month by three other council members: Kay Hollis, Robert Frick and Vivian "Bibi" Atkins.

The plaintiffs request several court orders telling Wilson that he has to put items on the agenda that are requested by town council members; remove the mayor's control over council agendas; cancel the contract given to the current economic development and communications director; void changes Wilson made to the budget to compensate the new job's $45,000 salary and benefits; and pay the town's utility attorney.

Judge G. Thomas Cooper Jr. dismissed the case stating that Chapin operates in a mayor-council form of government, and Wilson has authority to add or remove agenda items, while also hiring employees for the town. Cooper recommended the utility attorney file a different complaint if he is, in fact, not being paid by the town of Chapin as stated under contract.

"I am thankful for Judge Cooper's decision to dismiss the preliminary injunction by council members Atkins, Hollis and Frick," Wilson said in a statement Wednesday. "… I want to put this matter behind us and for all, and I plan to reach out to Bibi, Kay and Robbie to begin the process of building trust and working together for the benefit of Chapin."

The other council members did not want to comment.

WIS will continue to follow this story and will update as information becomes available.

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