Bolton: A culture of clubbinesss? Next Lexington County, SC, sheriff could have a tough time changing it

BY WARREN BOLTON
Associate Editor
The State
March 1, 2015

LEXINGTON COUNTY, SC — LEXINGTON COUNTY sheriff candidate Ed Felix denounces what he calls the “clubbiness” that characterizes the culture of the department he wants to lead.

He said if he’s elected he won’t tolerate cronyism and will hire based on credentials and ability rather than who you know. “The boat’s going to rock when I walk in,” Mr. Felix said.

Candidate Justin Britt said the sheriff’s department is no place for political patronage, favoritism and hiring friends. The “days of deals and back scratching” at the sheriff’s department would come to an end under his leadership, he said.

While candidate Jay Koon, assistant police chief in the town of Lexington, doesn’t think the culture at the department is that bad, he said that “in the previous administration we got way too political” and declared he would cling to his values as a law officer and stress honesty and integrity.

West Columbia police chief Dennis Tyndall said politics have no place in police work and that he’ll closely examine the culture of the department and demand professionalism.

Each of the four candidates has declared he will make it a priority to rebuild the sheriff’s department’s image, which was tainted by the demise of then-Sheriff James Metts, who pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge. For sure, residents will be looking to the next sheriff to restore their confidence in the department.

But it’s not easy to change the culture of an organization that was cultivated over four decades under the leadership of a man who, by the time he left office, was the most powerful public official in Lexington County. In addition to running the sheriff’s department and jail — where he hired and fired at will — Mr. Metts also oversaw all public safety agencies for homeland security purposes. He also had wide latitude when it came to how he managed his budget. His power was virtually unchecked.

That’s a hard act to follow, and obviously, bringing change could prove to be difficult. Rooting out that “clubbiness” Mr. Felix refers to could be particularly hard.

Part of the reason is that the hire-your-buddy system that candidates suggest has settled in the sheriff’s department isn’t unique to that agency. You can find it throughout local government in the county. To put it plainly: Lexington County is a bit incestuous when it comes to government. It’s the culture.

Need examples?

When County Council made former Sheriff Metts head of homeland security in 2003, he hired Tim James as his public safety chief to oversee those duties. But in 2005, Mr. James surprised council members — who were by that time grooming him to become administrator — when he left to be head of security at Lexington Medical Center, the county hospital.

That’s the same Lexington Medical Center whose foundation hired Lexington County resident and then-sate Rep. Nikki Haley, now our governor, as a $110,000-a-year fundraiser. But, rest assured, Mrs. Haley didn’t use her position as a state representative to lobby for Lexington Medical Center in that high-paid position. It’s true. The House Ethics Committee told us so.

When Mr. James left the public safety position in 2005, what did Mr. Metts do? He hired then-County Council chairman Bruce Rucker, then the longest-serving council member, of course.

In 2009, the town of Lexington hired County Councilman Johnny Jeffcoat as its economic director, a position that had been abolished four years earlier because town leaders said it duplicated the efforts of county officials and local business groups.

Mr. Jeffcoat’s job entailed trying to bring new restaurants, retailers and corporate offices to town. It was an arrangement fraught with possible conflict. Who would the councilman represent when the town’s interest conflicted with that of the county? Beyond that, Mr. Jeffcoat’s hiring appeared to be an attempt by the town to gain favor with a member of County Council.

Town officials seemed oblivious to the obvious pitfalls of such an arrangement. Perhaps that was because the town’s elected leader had a questionable arrangement of his own: Then-Lexington Mayor Randy Halfacre served as executive director of the Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce while continuing to hold public office.

Dare I mention former Lexington Town Councilman Danny Frazier, who is accused in an indictment of bribing Mr. Metts? In addition to being on council, he held jobs as an adviser to West Columbia on annexation and to Sheriff Metts on community concerns. He lost those jobs amid controversy over his involvement in advising Internet sweepstakes parlors seeking to expand the online gambling that some state officials deemed illegal.

No doubt, a sheriff determined to run his department on the up-and-up can change that culture, though deeply engrained.

But the job is made tougher because he’ll run into it time and again as he traverses Lexington County, where “clubbiness” is business as usual.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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