South Carolina editorial roundup
Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:
The Post and Courier of Charleston on investigating jail deaths:
Getting arrested shouldn’t be a death sentence, but for at least 153 people taken to local jails in South Carolina in the past decade it has been.
Note the words “at least.” As in: The number is almost certainly higher, but we don’t know how high.
A 1978 state law requires the state’s 57 local jails and six prison camps to report details of any inmate deaths to the state Department of Corrections. But the penalty for not reporting a death is just a $100 fine, and besides, no one enforces that law.
The Post and Courier’s Angie Jackson reviewed news articles from the past decade and discovered several cases where jail deaths that made the news didn’t make the official reports. There could be others, since her review of news accounts wasn’t comprehensive, and it’s possible, particularly in smaller jurisdictions, that some deaths never made the headlines.
Former state Rep. Vic Rawl, now a Charleston County councilman, told Ms. Jackson that he helped write the 1978 reporting law “to make sure things didn’t get swept under the rug.” Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think the law did its job.
As disturbing as it is that jail officials would ignore the reporting requirement, that’s just a symptom of the larger problem: Since no one at the state level is paying attention, no one is looking for patterns and problems, and no one is holding people responsible when inmates die in their custody.
It’s hard to get people to care about the plight of people in jail; we have a tendency to think of them as criminals who deserve what they get. But even if it were OK to ignore the deaths of people who have committed crimes, the fact is that local jails often double as debtors’ prisons, where people are kept because they can’t afford to pay their traffic ticket or make their child-support payment. Most of the inmates are awaiting trial, and might not be guilty of the allegations that landed them there.
In South Carolina, jail deaths are handled pretty much the same way as officer-involved shootings — that is, however the local jurisdiction chooses to handle them. As with officer-involved shootings, there’s no requirement that the State Law Enforcement Division investigate inmate deaths. Instead, investigations are left to county coroners and the jails or local police themselves. The coroners don’t compile statistics on jail deaths; more significantly, they don’t have the same investigative tools that SLED has.
The spotty job we do investigating or even keeping track of jail deaths is unacceptable. We need to require that SLED investigate all jail deaths — along with all officer-involved shootings — and make the results easily available to lawmakers and to the public.
Independent investigations can tell us whether a death was the result of suicide, accident or homicide. If it was a homicide, that means either another inmate or a jail official killed someone, and needs to be prosecuted. If it was a suicide or an accident, we need to know whether there are procedural changes — better monitoring, for instance, or better medical care — that could prevent similar deaths.
When our government, acting in our name, holds someone in custody, it becomes responsible for what happens to that person. It has no right to look away when that person dies. Neither do we.
The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg on a new law to regulate electric cooperatives
The South Carolina General Assembly has yet to make a decision on the future of the state-owned Santee Cooper utility and will not do so at least until they return to Columbia in January 2020. Substantive action was taken in 2019, however, on another important issue related to utilities.
Legislation that for the first time will provide state regulation of electric cooperatives was approved.
The bill grew out of a 2018 controversy involving the former board of trustees of St. Matthews-based Tri-County Electric Cooperative - with trustees being ousted from their positions and replaced with a new board in an unprecedented action by cooperative membership.
The changes followed newspaper reports on board practices that stunned officials with other co-ops and utilities, elected officials and co-op customers.
The former Tri-County board had an appetite for expensive dinners, cash bonuses and secretive meetings.
Some board members were being paid an average of $55,000 a year for a part-time job. Some were being paid as much as $79,800 a year to attend board meetings. Over the past several years, some members were paid in excess of $100,000.
Utility board members earn $450 per meeting. But Tri-County’s board held many more meetings per year than required by law, boosting compensation to three times the national average for co-op trustees.
Some Tri-County board members also were getting health insurance through the utility.
The new legislation is designed to prevent such future excesses.
Championed by Calhoun County Rep. Russell Ott, who represents many Tri-County customers, it gives the state Office of Regulatory Staff the power to conduct governance audits of co-ops. After an audit, the agency must report its findings to the co-op’s management and board and work to resolve any compliance issues that are identified. If there are disputes between regulators and a co-op, the state Public Service Commission has the power to resolve them.
Co-op boards must publicly disclose, by May 15 of each year, all compensation and benefits paid to board members. Directors cannot fill temporary board vacancies with their family members. Board members and their families are banned from having any other business relationship with the co-op — such as doing construction work.
The legislation also requires co-ops to notify their members at least 30 days before an annual meeting or any special meeting that includes an election. Polling places for the election of board members must be open before and after normal working hours to allow more consumer-members to participate. Directors and others are not permitted to campaign where members are voting.
While officials such as Mike Couick, president and CEO of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, say the entire Tri-County episode ultimately proved the cooperative model of ownership by members works, he agrees the oversight legislation is a positive step.
“I think this is a step toward restoring trust,” Couick said.
The Index-Journal of Greenwood on naming buildings for people
What’s in a name? Plenty. Especially when it comes to naming buildings, bridges, sections of road and the like.
Consider the new name the College of Charleston has given a sprawling property it owns. Dixie Plantation will now be called the College of Charleston at Stono Preserve. The college’s board was unanimous in its decision to rename the property to bring it in line with its mission and purpose. And yes, to move away from the stigma that anything with the name “Dixie” carries.
Names matter. And sometimes it becomes necessary to make a name change. Historic perspective can bring that about.
What about buildings, roads and bridges that bear the names of public figures? Harmless, right? Historic, right? Maybe. Sometimes. Definitely not always.
In Washington, D.C. we have a hallowed hall of government, the Russell Senate Office Building, named for the late Georgia Sen. Richard Russell Jr. A nice thing to do, unless you have a problem with segregation.
History bears out that Russell was a staunch supporter of racial segregation and even co-authored the Southern Manifesto with South Carolina’s own senator, Strom Thurmond. Russell was joined by 17 other Democrats and one Republican in filibustering to block the passage of civil rights legislation. And after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, Russell led the Southern boycott of the Democratic National Convention.
Juxtapose that with the second of three Senate buildings, the Dirksen Senate Office Building, named after Republican and former Illinois Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen. Dirksen actually had a role in the writing and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that Russell fought to suppress, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
And the third Senate building was named for Sen. Philip Aloysius Hart, a Democrat from Michigan. A lawyer and decorated war veteran, Hart has been referred to as the “conscience of the Senate. In his bestselling book “Inside Congress,” author Ronald Kessler, referred to Hart one of the few truly honorable men who served in the Senate and pointed to a time when Hart refused a lobbyist’s box of chocolates as a gift.
Three federal buildings, three different men. One in direct opposition to the civil rights movement, one in staunch support of the movement and another in whom both sides of the aisle put their trust.
Return closer to home and the campus of Clemson University where students and faculty alike have called for the renaming of Calhoun Honors College and Tillman Hall. John C. Calhoun and Ben Tillman have deep roots that weave a fabric of support of slavery and white supremacy.
The list can and does go on, from the local level to the state level to the federal level, all of which leads to a good question: Should buildings, roads, bridges and the like be named for or even after someone? Waiting on history to shed light on someone well after death might be the wiser choice of the two, but then again it depends on which side of the person’s history one stands with, doesn’t it? Segregationists would be proud to retain the Russell Senate Office Building while civil rights proponents would be proud to retain the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Maybe Hart would garner enough praise from both sides for his name to remain affixed to the third Senate building.
Perhaps what would be best is to sell naming rights, much the way is done with large venues, concert halls and stadiums.
Or perhaps a numbering system, not unlike that used in some public school systems, would be preferable. Many of us could agree on renaming the three federal buildings SOB 1, SOB 2 and SOB 3.
Chew on that for just a little while, because depending yet again on which side of the aisle or history you stand, you’re bound to lump a handful of senators into that category anyway.