Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Battle Between Dean Fowler and Florence County Council Hits the State Courts...

The 12 Year Mexican Standoff Between the Florence County Treasurer and County Council Ends Up With Ruling in Superior Court...


     There are few surer things in politics than rivalries and eventually outright contempt.  Most of the time, it involves people from across the aisle, but sometimes it involves an entire branch or body of government.  While some may question bringing these things up, our thought is when the problem is so well-known amongst everyone, what's the big deal? That is definitely the case of Florence County Treasurer Dean Fowler and Florence County Council - namely, Chairman Rusty Smith...


    The trail of blood (political blood, not actual) is long and messy here.. Fowler, the first countywide Republican ever elected to office, has been Treasurer for the past twelve years.  He replaced the previous Treasurer, who had been mired in scandal for years, involving various infractions. By the way, that man was Rusty Smith's father, who has been deceased for years now.  Time has not ended the feud... Fowler was a darling of the old Citizens in Action group, who made a job out of putting a fined-tooth comb to County Council.  Thye almost singlehandedly caused the county to include the $30 Road Use Fee as a separate item in the annual car tax bill...


   We'll be honest here.... We are friends with Dean Fowler. He was very helpful to us on our 2006 Council campaign, because we both share a love of transparency. And if there is one thing that has long been missing from Florence County Council, it is transparency..  I found it stunning that virtually nothing would be discussed in public, but rather in closed session, then Council would come out and just vote - without public discussion.  It was stunning, and I'm afraid to say it was constant between both party members of Council...


   Oh, there's more as well... Fowler was a tight steward of Florence County's funds, and he has made a pretty good business of keeping the expenses down... My personal favorite one was leasing county officials (yes, they get county-paid cars) Toyota Camry's, instead of the old and more expensive Crown Victoria's Rusty Smith has been used to.  True story....


   But, we are all unfortunately not perfect, and Fowler's flaw (if you wish to view it that way) it that he is hardnosed and always willing to butt heads with whoever is blocking what he thinks is right. And County Council has been at odds with him for over a decade now.  No, it's not just Rusty Smith and the Democrats.  He's had tiffs with Ken Ard and James Schofield as well... It's a sad fact: spend enough time in politics, and you will have enemies. It just happens... And eventually, they'll take you to court.


   A couple weeks ago, the 12th Superior Court of South Carolina had to decide a few longstanding issues between Fowler and County Council with regards to the width and available duties of the Treasurer position.  Basically it involved two facets: could the Treasurer use delinquent tax funds for anything other than recovery of delinquent taxes. Secondly, was the Treasurer able to negotiate contracts, spend department funds or grant salary increases without Council or County Administrator approval...  Not that the hearing was done totally fairly.  The county spent $100,000 on their attorneys, while Fowler was not given approval for counsel, and had to spend $7000 personally to properly represent his department.


    Surprisingly, there were no clear precedents involving countywide officials and what approval was needed for their own budgets.  So, the case was presented - and unfortunately for Fowler, and possibly Florence taxpayers, the County prevailed on all counts.  We can kind of understand not using the Delinquent Fund for any other uses. Granted, if it's just sitting there, not being used, the temptation to use it for overall good would be there.. As for the decision regarding all approval on contracts, spending and pay raises, that gets a little tighter....


    Yes, no one wants to see a rogue department in any governmental agency go wild... However, this decision leaves the Treasurer - and all other countwide officials - in an almost impotent position to run their department.  Funny thing - from what I remember, Council can vote on their own pay raises, but all other employees need their consent?  It's a bit ironic - the part timers (and that's what Council is) control all the power, but the full-time employees have none?  Does that really make any sense?



   Like most disfunctions in government, the whole problem appears to be political motivated.  Council and Fowler have been at odds for 12 years now, to the point that even the Republicans on Council tried to recruit a challenger for Fowler this year... But, according to the Circuit Court, Fowler's wings appear to have been clipped - unless he appeals. Then it continues on.  Like we said, Fowler is a tough, but hardworking public servant.  He has his faults, but he tells you what he thinks. Unlike most politicians, he has a very small filter between his thoughts and his speech. It's good for voters, but bad for him politically.  As far as who is being the most forthright, we think that's easy.... This is a 19 minute interview Dean Fowler did in his office with the Morning News' John Sweeney.  It's straight through, and at no point does Fowler seem to have to search for an answer or bullshit... It's tells you a lot about the guy, and why the decision may be a bad thing for Florence County voters..



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aoeTVzueuY


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4 comments:

pluvlaw said...

First, the premise that “there are no clear precedents involving countrywide officials and what approval was needed for their own budgets” and that the Circuit Court’s decision regarding pay raises puts countywide officials in an “impotent position” is just wrong. It is axiomatic in this country and this state that legislative bodies control the purse strings. There’s been precedent on that since the 1950s when the SC Supreme Court specifically found that the appropriation of public funds is a legislative function. In fact, it’s a function legislative bodies cannot delegate, as to do so would be unconstitutional (a premise that the SC Supreme Court has recognized at least since the 1990s).

Why is that? Because of this little thing I like to call Article I, Section 8 of the South Carolina Constitution, which creates this nifty little thing called “separation of powers.” Fowler’s problem, among many, is that he believes once the county has budgeted his department the money, he gets to do with it whatever he wants. He’s wrong. Hell, there was a case directly on point over the wage issue from Florence County in the 1980s. The statutory law was just as clear, even “revenue neutral” transfers of funds within a department must, by law, be approved by council. (see S.C. Code 4-9-140). No, there was plenty of “precedent” on the salary issue, Fowler simply did not like the precedent.

The crap about the attorney’s fees is similar. There is clear precedent. It’s called statutory law and it’s codified, once again in Title Four, Chapter 9, where it is clearly spelled out that only County Council can enter into contracts that bind the county and the taxpayers. Oh, by the way, County Ordinances expressly provide that no contract for legal services can be entered in to without prior written approval by the country atty and county administrator. It’s been the clear law for over 10 years and, BTW, Fowler cited no authority in his lawsuit contrary to this clear “precedent.”

As the Circuit Court found, Fowler's actions are "disturbing." Fowler submitted his bill to the County for his $7833 in atty's fees and was told he had to have County Council approval. What'd he do in response to that? He cut his own check. In doing so, he violated Constitutional and state law, as well as local ordinances. If Fowler was smart, he’d worry a little bit more about being INDICTED than he would about appealing this decision. I see nothing in his history in office to evidence he is that smart.

At the end of the day, Fowler engaged in a lawsuit against clearly established case, statutory and constitutional law because he thinks he’s Col. Nathan R. Jessup and he gets to tell County Council “I run my unit the way I run my unit.” And the Council and now the Courts have told him, “Uh…no you don’t…at least not the spending part, Sport.” The only question now, is will Fowler continue down this stupid road....

Mike Reino said...

To quote DA Burr (Danny DeVito) from Johnny Dangerously, 'It's weak Tommy - it's flimsy, it's not enough. It won't hold up in court....'

The problem that if I had to guess from Dean's vantage is he has had such a tough time dealing with Council, he probably wouldn't believe their opinion. If the statutes were given to him like you listed, I'd find that hard to dispute.

Council approval does keep a Treasurer from doing illegal things and preserve checks and balances, but I don't see how finding vendors that would save taxpayers money is bad. He mentions that, and I know the cars was a good example. It seemed that Council wasn't interested in doing that..

This definitely does clip Fowler's wings, but I still see Dean as a good Treasurer, and a rare advocate for taxpayers. This will surely cause him to have to adjust and be more diplomatic with Council.. Though Vinegar is very popular in the Pee Dee, it may be time to spend $5 of that budget on a bag of Sugar!

pluvlaw said...

Of course Fowler mentions that stuff, but the problem is, that's not what the lawsuits were about. Fowler doesn't want to talk about the actual basis for the suits, b/c he has no reasonable justification for them. Hell, his "reasoning" behind hiring his own atty and thus ignoring the law was he didn't trust the county atty or his people. Having sued the county numerous times myself, I can assure you that our present county attorney is as trustworthy an atty as there is. Fowler's problem with him is his advice to Fowler was gonna be that Fowler was dead wrong. That just so happened to be advice based on the law.

The law and process was explained to him and Fowler simply decided he should get to do with whatever he wanted to do with "his" money. It's not the first time our good treasurer has been slapped down by the courts and it won't be the last given his attitude.

Mike Reino said...

I just watched the last Council meeting on Channel 11, and the County Attorney did say that the Assn of Counties and Municipalities, or whatever it's called, did attend the Circuit hearing to get clarification as well. Maybe he was being nice, but it sounds like he wasn't the only one with questions on the subject - but it seems clear now.

Schofield had a lot to say, but given what has occurred, if I were Dean, it's time to move on if he wants to be re-elected. It's unwise as Treasurer to cost taxpayers - i.e. Voters - more money by appealing anything.