South Congaree mayor says miscommunication caused him to misrepresent source of ethics opinion docum
South Congaree, SC (Paul Kirby) - South Congaree’s Mayor Danny Jones said Thursday that a miscommunication caused him to incorrectly identify the source of a document he read to the council last week about whether it was ethical to hire his sister as an employee of the town. On Monday, February 26, the town’s council voted to rehire Pat Shull, Jones’ sister, to run the day-to-day operations of the town hall. Shull was the clerk many years ago but was fired by the town council serving at that time. She sued the town to clear her name, prevailed in that case, and went to work for a former council member in his personal business. Jones was not involved in the government at the time of Shull’s firing and most of the council has changed since all that occurred.
Before the council voted to hire Shull this week, Jones read a document to the rest of the council that he said was from the SC Ethics Commission. According to council members who heard the letter, it stated that it was fine for governments to hire a close relative of the mayor or a council member as long as the elected relative recused himself from any discussion regarding the hiring and firing of the employee relative. They also couldn’t take part in any discussion regarding the salary and compensation package for that relative. Jones did excuse himself from the discussion regarding Shull’s hiring every time it was brought up according to the other council members. Monday night, he left the building when the council talked about hiring Shull and then took their vote. The problem is, the document that Jones read wasn’t from the SC Ethics Commission at all.
Jones said that the document he received was given to him by Councilmember Mechelle Mabry. The mayor said he asked her to call the Ethics Commission and make sure there were no issues with South Congaree rehiring Shull and he thought she had done that. When he was handed the document, he thought is was received from the Ethics Commission and that’s why he said that; basically, he misspoke according to Jones. When reached by telephone, Mabry said that she didn’t receive the document, rather she generated it from information she took off the Ethics Commission’s website. She didn’t say if she ever told the mayor exactly where it came from.
Jones said he never intended to deceive or mislead anyone regarding the document or its origin. He simply assumed Mabry got it from the State Ethics Commission or perhaps the SC Municipal Association because he had asked her to call the right agency and handle that. Once he had read the document to the council, he left the room and the building because he wanted to ensure that he didn’t break any rules or violate any laws.
In the SC Ethics Commission website, there are many places that deal with nepotism, the practice of close relatives working together in business or government. A sister is defined as a close relative in their website. In fact, there’s a page titled Rules of Conduct, General Information that has at least one entire paragraph that deals with the nepotism issue.
One paragraph clearly states, “No public official, public member, or public employee may cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer, or advancement of a family member to a state or local office or position in which the public official, public member, or public employee supervises or manages. A public official, public member, or public employee may not participate in an action relating to the discipline of the public official's, public member's or public employee's family member.”
If you search the entire site, there are many opinions that have been issued in the past that deal with this as well. If Jones takes no part in his sister’s hiring, promotions, the amount she’s to be paid, or any action related to disciplining her if there ever is a problem, what the town did appears to be ethical.
Because Mayor Jones left the building when the discussion of hiring his sister was held and the vote was taken that caused her to become an employee of the town, the town followed the letter of the law.
Regarding the misrepresentation of the document that the mayor read to the council, a search of the ethics site returned no results on this matter. It doesn’t appear to have been addressed even if someone knowingly misrepresented the origin of a document which Jones said he didn’t do.
When speaking with Jones on Thursday regarding this matter he said, “In hindsight, when Mechelle gave me the paper the other night, I should have asked her where she got it. She’s been a South Carolina state employee for many years and I felt she was the best person to check into the legality of hiring Pat. I thought she had made the phone calls to the state. I realize now that I shouldn’t make assumptions, but I never knowingly misled anyone.” He continued by saying, “I took no part in that discussion, I haven’t taken any part in deciding how much we’ll pay Pat, and now that I know exactly what the rules are, I will follow them. I made an innocent mistake when I said where the letter came from, but for that I am sorry.”
Council members Brian Jackson, Leslie Gifford, and Mechelle Mabry said they hadn’t been in any way influenced by Jones when deciding to hire Shull. All said they were still very supportive of hiring Shull and felt as if her experience was a tremendous plus to stop the turnover in that position. “She knows the job and can hit the ground running,” Jackson said. Over the past 6 years the town has had more than 5 people hold that job and leave for one reason or another.