Richland Co. lawmakers sponsor bills to hold recreation commissioners accountable after turbulent month

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Published: Mar. 15, 2022 at 4:57 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 15, 2022 at 7:34 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Richland County lawmakers have sponsored three bills to add oversight to county recreation commissions in the aftermath of a turbulent February for the Richland County Recreation Commission.

Two bills would place the appointment and removal of recreation commissioners directly under the power of county legislative delegations.

A third would give legislative delegations the power to dissolve the commissions and place the responsibilities with county government.

Currently, county legislative delegations nominate commissioners for the governor to appoint. Additionally, lawmakers go through the governor to get commissioners removed.

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Recreation commissions are funded by county taxpayers, but are independent of county governments. Richland County’s operates with an almost $16 million taxpayer funded budget.

The bills come after Richland County Recreation Commission decided to “part ways” with Executive Director Lakita Watson on Feb. 25.

On Feb. 16, WIS broke the news of a letter Watson wrote to commissioners on Feb. 10, outlining her concerns with some commissioners’ behavior and how her performance was reviewed.

Watson described how four commissioners created “hostile” work environment, impacted her ability to do her job and had limited understanding of their roles as commissioners.

Commissioners either didn’t respond to requests for comment or declined to comment at the time.

In subsequent meetings, the board did not explain its thoughts or actions on Watson.

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A press release was ultimately released on Feb. 25, stating in part:

The Richland County Recreation Commission and Executive Director Ms. Lakita Watson amicably have agreed to part ways. Ms. Watson’s last official day is today, but she has agreed to remain available to assist the Commission during this transitional period.

S.C. House of Representatives Minority Leader Todd Rutherford (D-Richland Co.) sponsored H5099 which would place the power of appointment and removal of commissioners at the sole discretion of the legislative delegation.

The bill has bipartisan support and passed second reading in the House. It is waiting for a perfunctory third reading before passage to the senate.

In his brief comments on the floor of the House, Rutherford described the Richland Co. Commission in “disarray.”

It passed second reading in a vote of 106 to 1.

“What’s clear is we need to make sure as a delegation that our taxpayers are getting the bang for their buck and that people are spending it wisely down there at the commission, and not doing things they don’t need to do,” he said.

Sen. Darrell Jackson (D-Richland) filed a companion bill (S1147) in the Senate which is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Seth Rose (D-Richland) co-sponsored Rutherford’s bill and also sponsored a separate bill (H5083) which would give delegations the power to dissolve recreation commissions and place its responsibilities with county governments.

The bill is in House Judiciary Committee.

Rose said the county’s recreation system should mirror the City of Columbia. Columbia operates and oversees its own recreation department.

“The system we have set-up outside the city limits has no accountability. I can tell you the that the county who funds the parks and recreation outside the city limits is in the best position with their legal team, with HR, to have a system of accountability for the system,” he said.

Rose said he’d prefer that the delegation not appoint commissioners, but given the current system it does need the powers outlined in Rutherford’s bill to hold commissioners accountable moving forward.

Governor Henry McMaster’s office and the Richland County Recreation Commission spokesperson did not return requests for comment.

Richland Co. Recreation Commission Chair Donzetta Lindsay declined to comment on the bill, as well.

The commission is not new to controversy. Former commissioners had public clashes with former Governor Nikki Haley.

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Watson’s predecessor, James Brown III, faced criminal charges which he was later acquitted of.

He was also ordered to pay $35,750 for violating state ethics law.

Former Deputy Director Tameka Williams is now the Acting Executive Director.

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