Lawmakers reprimand 'failed' state agency, ask governor to fire its board

Lawmakers reprimand "failed" state agency, ask governor to fire its board

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - What is the South Carolina Commission for Minority Affairs and what does it do?

A sign at its office on Devine Street says it's the official state agency that serves South Carolina's "diverse communities of color." However, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers describes it as a state agency that's failing minorities and all taxpayers, even though they all agreed the agency's mission is vital.

"Clearly, there's a problem," said Rep. Bill Taylor (R-Aiken), in a recent meeting.           

"At the end of the day, we have an agency that has completely lost its way," added Rep. Gary Clary (R-Pickens).

For months, the House Legislative Oversight Committee had been auditing the agency that had a budget of $1.3 million last fiscal year and found evidence that it's not doing what the law requires. According to a new report by the committee, the Commission for Minority Affairs hasn't been collecting statistics and research to help lawmakers help minorities, it hasn't set up an important hotline to receive reports of violations of immigration laws, its board of commissioners is divided, it had been improperly operating non-profits out of its state-funded office until now, and it has drifted from its mission of helping minorities.

"What is your defense to these findings?" Rep. Chandra Dillard (D-Greenville) asked the agency's director, Thomas Smith, in the meeting last Tuesday.

"I wouldn't only present a defense if I had one," Smith responded.

Smith, who retired over the weekend just days after the meeting, wouldn't offer a defense but did say the agency is important.

"While I wouldn't say we have been, you know, excellent in every way, but the mission is great," he said.

With all that said, last week, the House Legislative Oversight Committee did something it hadn't done before and gave Minority Affairs a vote of "no confidence."

The committee also asked the governor to fire its board after a recommendation was made by Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell (D-Lancaster).

"This thorough review of the agency left me with significant concerns as to the agency leadership's ability to fulfill its vital mission," Powers Norrell wrote. "I recommend the Governor consider replacing the board members who bear the ultimate responsibility for setting the course of the agency and choosing an executive director who can effectively lead the staff in their daily activities."

Chief Michelle Mitchum, of the Orangeburg County-based Pine Hill Indians, was encouraged by the action.

"Minority Affairs doesn't serve anybody," she said.

She said her tribe has struggled with the agency for years.

"It is a true mess," she said.

Mitchum wouldn't mind seeing the Commission for Minority Affairs completely dismantled, but if it isn't, she'd like to see it focus on helping fellow Native Americans, along with Latino Americans and African Americans.

"They have the same high school d ropout problems that we do. They have the same poverty problems that we do. They have the same medical issues that we do. They have the same lack of access to transportation that we do. They have the same lack of food that we do," Mitchum said. "They have the same problems that we do."

Even though he could soon be fired by the governor, on Monday, the commission's board chair, Kenneth Battle, said the agency will move forward with its mission and was already working to address concerns raised by lawmakers. His board's next priority will be hiring a qualified executive director to replace Smith.

"The governor's office is reviewing the report and recommendations and will work to address any and all concerning issues with the commission," a spokesperson for Governor Henry McMaster wrote in a statement.

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