Sitting Richland Co. Councilmember and former colleague missed dozens of meetings and hundreds of votes
COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Every four years Richland County residents elect leaders to the county council to represent their interests.
A WIS investigation found two districts routinely were not represented in hundreds of county council votes over the last two years.
Council minutes and videos show District Six Councilmember Joe Walker III and former District Seven Councilmember Gwen Kennedy missed more than 40 meetings combined in the years studied, resulting in almost 600 missed votes.
Their districts combined represent an estimated 74,000 people in Richland County.
A viewer reached out to WIS concerned about Walker’s attendance at council meetings this past year.
As a result, WIS studied the attendance of councilmembers over 2021 and 2020.
WIS created an initial data bank of 2021 meeting minutes, tallying each council member’s attendance as present, not present, late, or partial absence.
After an initial count, the viewer’s concern about Walker’s attendance in 2021 appeared to be confirmed.
To verify the initial data, WIS watched publicly available videos.
Once Walker’s absence could be verified, WIS returned to the meeting minutes to count the votes he missed.
WIS found Walker did miss meetings in 2020, but also discovered Kennedy’s absences outpaced everyone else.
WIS repeated the process for Kennedy and her 2020 absences.
As of this publication, the Richland County Council website has minutes for 37 full council meetings in 2021.
The meetings range from Jan. 5, 2021 through Nov. 9, 2021.
Similarly, the council website has 42 minutes published online for 2020 meetings.
WIS is only counting 39 of those meetings, as it could find no videos to confirm Kennedy’s potential absence in the other three.
In 2020, Kennedy was not present for 22 out of the 39 counted meetings.
WIS tallied an additional three meetings where she missed votes.
Kennedy missed 352 votes as a result of her absences.
While his attendance was better than Kennedy’s, Walker missed seven meetings in 2020.
He additionally missed votes in nine other meetings due to partial absences or being late.
Here’s the 2020 data:
In 2021, Kennedy was no longer on council (due to a lost re-election bid) and Walker’s absences significantly grew.
WIS found Walker was absent 21 out of the 37 meetings.
He was late to four more meetings.
In total, he missed 225 votes.
Here’s the data:
Walker points to “life,” Kennedy declines to comment
WIS contacted both councilmembers after their attendance trends became clear in the data.
Kennedy declined to comment, stating in a voicemail she was “not going to discuss it at this time.”
Walker agreed to an interview with WIS on Friday, Dec. 3.
When WIS asked what was behind his lack of attendance, Walker said “life.”
“When I got elected as a 37-year-old father of four with over 600 employees, I believe the constituents of district six knew that there were going to be some challenges for me from a time perspective, a prioritization perspective,”
Walker pointed to the sale of his Marco’s Pizza enterprises this past March.
“Since then, pursuing other opportunities. I’m 39-years-old, I got to keep the bus rolling. So, looking for other opportunities has been exhausting,” he said.
His 2018 campaign website states:
As the owner and managing partner of JH Development, Walker has developed Marco’s Pizza into one of the Midlands’ most successful brands and was named Columbia’s Young Professional of the Year in 2016 by Columbia Metropolitan Magazine. He was also named the 2016 Veteran Business Person of the Year by the Small Business Administration and included in The State’s “20 Under 40″ in 2015, an annual list that features business leaders in Columbia under the age of 40.
WIS found at least one instance where Walker was traveling during a meeting absence.
Walker’s publicly viewable Facebook page shows this post from July 14, 2021, stating he was at Palm Beach.
The Richland County Council had a meeting on July 13.
WIS presented the image to Walker in the interview, and he later confirmed he was out of town from July 13-16 to attend a Scenthound Discovery Day.
He also said time with his children is a driving factor in attendance.
“Their lives and their activities in my life come before Richland County Council meetings,” he said.
He additionally referenced the “revolving door” of COVID protocol were a factor, but said he could not quantify its’ impact.
Walker also said “99 percent of the work” is done outside the meetings, pointing to his communication with constituents and help navigating local government.
He called the gatherings a “formality and a vote.”
He said he does monitor agendas and attempts to attend meetings where his constituents or district could be directly impacted.
“I’ve had 0 constituent complaints about my representation of them, to me.”
WIS asked if he feels he has time to be a councilman.
“I do. As long as there’s an understanding, as long as my constituents are okay with the time allocation I’m willing to put forward or capable to put forward. I guess we’ll find out if they’re okay with it in November,” he said.
Walker ran unopposed in 2018.
He questioned if his vote in the missed votes would have changed the council decision.
The minutes for the missed meetings contain zoning public hearings, public safety votes and the Aug. 16 vote on masks in county schools.
“I already knew the issues, I knew where the votes were going to fall. Time allocation decisions were made,” he said.
Walker campaigned on better governance and taking on corruption in Richland County. He’s been vocal in his criticism of county government.
WIS asked if he noticed Kennedy’s absence and if it bothered him.
“I wondered what her constituents thought of it, and I wondered if she was still able to effectively represent their needs. But again, I have no idea what she was doing outside the hours of the meetings,” he said.
Walker said he’s unsure if he’s running again for council in 2022 and said he will do his best to be at meetings when he can.
He said he has not considered resigning.
Compensation and accountability
WIS filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the compensation for Walker and Kennedy during their time in office.
At a minimum, they received salaries of $17,777 in the years studied.
Walker said the salary is the only thing he’s been paid, and it goes toward county-provided health insurance premiums.
He denied receiving benefits for travel, training, or any other perks.
The Richland County Council does have requirements for county council attendance. Its policy only states:
Each member shall be within the Council Chambers during its meetings unless excused or necessarily prevented. The Chair, if notified prior to the meeting, may excuse any member from attendance at meetings of the Council and its committees for any stated period upon reason shown, and such excused absence shall be noted in the minutes.
Similarly, county ordinances do not create requirements or punishment for attendance. It does however create a pathway for removing members of boards, stating:
In the event that any appointee to a board, committee, or commission misses five out of twelve meetings of the board, committee, or commission to which he has been appointed, he shall automatically lose his membership, and his seat shall be declared vacant. The chairman of the board, committee or commission shall notify the chairman of county council, in writing, upon any of its members accumulating five absences out of twelve meetings. The county council may, in its discretion, waive enforcement of this provision in the case of illness, death of a family member, court appearance, or other similar circumstances, beyond the control of the appointee. In addition, the members of such boards and commissions may be removed for cause by majority vote of the council. The provisions of this section shall be applicable to the boards, committees, and commission enumerated in this article, as well as to any other board, committee or commission appointed by the Richland County Council.
WIS requested comment from County Council Chair Paul Livingston for the story. Current District Seven Councilmember Gretchen Barron declined to comment.
WIS showed district six constituent and government watchdog John Crangle portions of the interview with Walker. He said Walker “made an error in judgment.”
“It’s obvious from Mr. Walker’s comments that he’s overloaded with business and family responsibilities, and he should not have run for the county council under the circumstances,” he said.
Crangle said Walker should have resigned if he found he couldn’t attend meetings and disputed Walker’s argument on the impact of his vote. “Councilmembers are elected to do 100 percent of the job, not 90 percent or 50 percent of the job. He should be at the council meetings, he should participate in the discussions, he should participate in the vote,” he said.”I disagree with him that what goes on at the county council is cut and dry before it actually happens.”
Crangle said moving forward, he hopes Walker will improve his attendance.
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