News Archive

(1105) Week of Mar. 16, 2005

 

Week of Mar. 16, 2005

Courthouse security issue causes concerns
Court hears arguments in Preston libel lawsuit
Freedom of Information sets policy for open government
Senior Solutions computer classes introduce the basics
GWBA Easter egg hunt Saturday
You are invited to the Southern Ball

Courthouse security issue causes concerns

By Stan Welch

As plans continue for improving security at the Anderson County Courthouse in the aftermath of the death of four people by an escaped prisoner in Atlanta last week.

Chief Magistrate Nancy Devine has other concerns, as well. 

In a letter to County Administrator Joey Preston, dated February 15, 2005, Magistrate Divine raises several budgetary concerns.

Referring to a study by an independent auditor, Devine points out that the study’s recommendation for additional staff has resulted in  the hiring of a single part time clerk. Other than that, no additional staff has been hired in 15 years, since Feb. 28, 1990, according to the letter.

During that same period of time from Feb. 1990 till Feb. 2005, the fees, fines and assessments transmitted by Devine’s office alone to the County treasurer increased from $32,000 in 1990 to $277, 223.61 in 2005.

Devine goes on to indicate that the Magistrate’s court collected $3,144,586.11 last year, with the County retaining $1,589,464.60 of that amount. The court’s operating expenses were $1,401,250.

“This means that we collected $188,214.60 more than our office expends,” Devine points out.

Devine goes on to say that the court, beginning with budget year 2005-06 will require a full time clerk to help the district magistrates on a rotating basis.

The letter continues, “Each district court must be assisted by support staff to be compliant with state law and state Supreme Court orders. By comparison, Oconee, Spartanburg, Pickens, Greenville and Horry Counties all have a clerk in each of their district magistrate’s offices.”

She also requested an additional $2000 for each of the seven magistrate’s offices for capital improvements.

In regards to another item, one which caught Councilman Bill Dees attention at a recent Council meeting, Devine addresses the question of jurors fees. In 2000, those fees were $40,000.

Beginning in 2001, that amount was decreased until it is now set at $32,000. As a result of the availability of judges to conduct jury trials, and a corresponding increase in requests for such trials. Devine says that amount is in need of a significant increase. She cites the delay in jury trials as evidence.

“We have 635 cases pending jury trials that are 90 days old or older; 95 cases between 60-90 days old and 100 cases that are one to 30 days old,” she said.

Dees, speaking at a recent Council meeting, said that the $40,000 figure was troublesome and asked that Council look into that issue. The analysis of other counties shows that Greenville County spends $102,800 on jury trials while Horry and Spartanburg Counties spend $180,000 and over $200,000 respectively.

Security is clearly an issue as well, and has been for years, according to Devine.

“This court deals with large amounts of cash on a daily basis, crowds of people, and often deals with volatile personalities,” she states.

 She referred to one incident where a defendant entered her office and stole her purse, which two other judges later retrieved.

Citing a traffic flow over the past year of approximately 600 people per week, she added,  “We urge the Anderson County Council to fund the position that Sheriff David Crenshaw is requesting which would provide security in our court.”

Other County officials share the security concerns of the court. District 7 Councilwoman Cindy Wilson sent a letter to County Administrator Joey Preston expressing her concerns as well as her sympathy for those who were killed. She urges quick action, saying, “ It’s imperative that the security concerns . . . should be immediately addressed. The lives of judges, jurors, witnesses, defendants, plaintiffs, employees and just citizens coming in to pay taxes are at risk.”

In a letter dated March 1, Preston responded, agreeing that those issues are paramount. He also points out several measures that have been implemented, and others that will be presented at the next meeting of County Council. He also asks Wilson’s support for those measures.

Even in agreeing on the need for action, there is still evidence of the skirmishing  which has characterized past dealings between the two. Wilson refers to the cost of improving courthouse security as being a factor, but adds “it certainly should seem to take precedence over Art Center improvements and over security at the Historic Courthouse.”

On security at the Historic Courthouse, Preston responded, “In an effort to address this in the past, we have utilized our commissioned building and park security officers to assist in areas such as the Historic Courthouse and in the Magistrate’s office. Although the commissioning of these officers is not something you have supported in the past; nonetheless, they play a vital role in our efforts to improve security conditions.”

Both, however, express their desire to work with all involved parties to prevent any such event in Anderson County.

Court hears arguments in Preston libel lawsuit

By Stan Welch

An effort by one of the defendants in a libel and defamation lawsuit initiated by County Administrator Joey Preston to force Preston to disclose additional information stalled in an Anderson County courtroom this week.

On Tuesday, March 15, James Walsh, the attorney for Robert Stansell sought a motion to compel discovery. Walsh wanted access to Preston’s banks accounts, tax returns, and other financial information.

Appearing before 10th Circuit Administrative Judge Cordell Maddox, Walsh argued that his client, as well as co-defendant Steve Lovelace, is being sued for defamation of character and libel due to questions they raised about Preston’s possession/ownership of a BMW Z-3 sports car.

The lawsuit was filed by Preston after Stansell made comments on a morning talk show on a local radio station.

The comments came after failing to find any record of Preston’s ownership of the car on an Anderson County website dealing with property tax payments.

Stansell questioned Preston about who was paying for the car and who was paying the taxes. The questions came in the midst of a controversy sparked by the county’s sale of the Big Creek landfill to Allied Waste, Inc.

Rumors spread that the BMW was a reward from Allied to Preston for his role in shepherding the deal past Council. The call by Stansell would later become a central issue in Preston’s lawsuit.

Stansell and Lovelace, at a taxpayer’s protest at a later date, carried signs again referring to the car and the financial arrangements involving it. According to the lawsuit, this was apparently the defamatory act which also sparked the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was dismissed last year because a subsequent federal action was brought against the two defendants, as well as Councilwoman Cindy Wilson and the Town of Williamston for violating the federal Driver’s Privacy Act. Preston alleged that his tag number was illegally traced, thereby violating his privacy.

The state case for libel and defamation was later dismissed because of the existence of the federal case.

When the federal case was settled recently, Preston’s attorney, Nancy Bloodgood, who also serves as the County’s labor attorney, sought to revive the original case and was successful.

Walsh argued that if the allegations of misuse of public funds which the lawsuit charges Stansell with are assumed, then truth would be a defense for his client.

“We in no way concede those charges against Mr. Stansell to be true, but to defend ourselves against those charges, we need a more complete discovery,” Walsh said.

Walsh stated that the BMW  is the heart of the matter.

“I would like to ask Mr. Preston some basic questions, like where did you buy the car? How much did you pay?  When did you buy it? If you leased it, who was the leasing agent?”

He conceded that the defense had received documents from the plaintiff’s attorneys, but said, “We haven’t received answers.”

Walsh also raised the question of financial damages. 

“If he claims that, including attorneys fees, we need access to the accounts he paid those fees from. We need to see his tax returns to determine if their was economic loss. We would examine these documents under a confidentiality agreement. we are not interested in broadcasting this information, or embarrassing anyone.”

Bloodgood countered that the plaintiff had provided all the documentation necessary to satisfy the defendants.

“We have been fully and completely responsive. They might not like some of the answers we have given them, but those answers are responsive,” Bloodgood said.

Upon questioning by the judge, she conceded that economic loss, aside from attorneys fees would not be an issue in Preston’s case.

She called the continued quest for discovery “harassment” by the defendants and their attorneys.

“The defendants’ attorneys are on a fishing trip. Discovery is not meant  to be used to punish someone for suing you. I am inclined to ask the judge to reward attorneys’ fees for my trip up here today, just to tell Mr. Walsh what I have told him on the phone several times.”

In the end, the judge took the matter under advisement, saying that he was not comfortable with anyone’s personal information “being out there”.

He added that if he granted the motion to compel discovery that there “will be an airtight protective order in place.” He added that he was offering no clues as to an eventual ruling.

“Normally, I would tell the defense to come back after the plaintiff’s deposition ( scheduled  for April 8) if you don’t get what you want from your questioning of Mr. Preston. But I won’t do that. I will continue the case itself beyond the deposition date. Then you two attorneys come to my chambers to discuss scheduling for the next hearing,” Judge Maddox said.

The judge also reported to the attorneys that he had been in the General Assembly  when the issues involving the landfill came before that body.

“That was in my area, but I do not think there is a problem with me presiding. I just wanted to make you aware of that up front,” the judge said.

Neither attorney objected to Judge Maddox presiding over the case.

Freedom of Information sets policy for open government

By Stan Welch

This week has been declared Sunshine Week in South Carolina, in recognition of the state’s policy of open government.

A lynchpin of that policy is the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, which establishes the laws governing the conduct of public meetings, as well as the public’s access to information involving the various levels of government in the state. Federal Sunshine laws also exist for similar purposes.

Current security concerns have tightened public access to information, even information that was once readily available, especially at the federal level.

Competitive state and local governments often seek to provide confidentiality to industries and other economic influences that might be considering investments in the area.

For example, a law is currently before the Georgia state legislature that would allow local governments to keep secret any contracts being negotiated to attract economic development until after the contracts were signed and approved.

Despite that background, most public officials consider the public’s business to be just that – public.

The Journal attempted to contact the members of the Anderson County Council for their views on the issue of open government. Those who were contacted are cited below.

Councilman Fred Tolly said “Open government is what we need. The public needs to be aware of what their government is doing.”

Councilman Bill McAbee stressed the critical nature of open government. “Our democratic form of government is based upon the trust of the people. If the people’s business is not done openly, they cannot gauge how we’re conducting their business. If the trust is lost, there can be no true democracy. For that reason, open government and the public’s right to know are essential to the entire process.”

Councilwoman Cindy Wilson agreed. “Public records are just that – public. Anything the people pay for through their taxes should be open to review. As County Council members, we should all uphold that.” (Note: Wilson is currently involved in a legal challenge to obtain both legal and financial records of the county which she has been seeking for more than a year.)

Councilman Bill Dees was adamant in his support of open government and public records, but with some restrictions. “I feel very strongly about the right of the people to know. The public should be informed. Still, there are some types of information we can’t release because of security. For example, intelligence dealing with terrorism, confidential informants, things like that. I also think client/attorney privilege is important. But by and large, the public clearly has a right to know how their representatives are serving them, and what kind of information they are basing their decisions on.”

 Dees also made a point not often heard. “People don’t realize it, but they as citizens have the same right to exercise the Freedom of Information act as the media. The media is no more entitled to public information than any average citizen. But whatever the source of the information, it must be accurate. With those circumstances observed. I am very much in favor of the public’s right to know.”

Dees point is both valid and an essential part of the FOIA’s strength. It does not differentiate between requests for information or records, whether they are made by media organizations, other organizations or agencies, or by the average citizen.

Calls to Council members Greer, Floyd, and Thompson , who were out of town, were not returned. Nor were calls to County Administrator Joey Preston, seeking his comments.

Senior Solutions computer classes introduce the basics

Area seniors are taking advantage of computer classes being offered by Senior Solutions at their new senior site at the Carolina Community Center in Williamston.

Instructor Melanie Dugan, who also teaches adult education classes at The Career and Technology Center, said the 16 hour course is being offered to seniors in two hour classes that are held twice each week.

Sixteen area seniors are taking advantage of the opportunity each Tuesday and Thursday to learn more about the basics of computers.

The Introduction to Computers classes start at the basic beginner level, according to Dugan. The classes includes personal instruction on how to use a computer, mouse and keyboard, opening and closing files, saving files, working with different drives, internet basics, use of search engines and how to personalize a desktop.

Dugan said the Senior Solutions program will offer Microsoft Word and Excel classes in April. The classes, which are normally $25, will be offered to seniors for $20. There is no cost for the introduction to computers Windows class, she said.

The eight computers and printers being used at the Senior Solutions site were donated by AnMed, according to Site Manager Rachael Grate.

Senior Joan Black said she has learned a lot in the class.

“I have learned how to do things in the order that it comes,” she said.

“I’ve had one (computer) at home since 2000 and hadn’t learned how to use it. I’m looking forward to the other classes,” she said.

Senior Solutions officially opened the new senior site in Williamston at the Caroline Community Center on January 4.

Senior Solutions executive director Douglas Wright said the organization plans to partner with the center to offer lots of activities.

The satellite center offers an ongoing schedule of games, travel opportunities, computer classses as well as seminars addressing the health issues facing seniors and the caregivers.

They also plan to offer medication management classes, exercise, dance and other programs.

All seniors in the area are invited to participate in the programs being offered, according to Grate.

The goal is to get approximatley 25 participants attending on a regular basis. “We are here to find interests and needs,” she said. “The organization plans to have a quartely activity calendar and provide a warm, pleasant and kind atmosphere. We will be here for them.”

The organiation also hopes to offer a home delivery meals program, where meals can be packed in Williamston and deliverd throughout the area.

Senior Solutions already provides about 125 meals a day to seniors in Williamston, Pelzer, Piedmont and Honea Path, Grate said.

According to Grate, other activities will include games, checkers, bingo, arts and crafts, quilting or any other interests seniors may have.

There will be periodic shopping trips and programs focusing on health and nutrition issues.

There will also be a devotional offered each week, she said.

Transportation to and from the center will also be offered in the future, according to Grate.

One goal is making friendships through meeting and greeting, which develop into life long friendships, she said.

Currently Senior Solutions offers three adult daycare sites, home delivered  meals, in home care and transportation to senior citizens in Anderson and Oconee County.

For more information about the Senior Solutions Williamston Activity Site or any of the upstate facilities, call (864) 225-3370.

GWBA Easter egg hunt Saturday

The Greater Williamston Business Association will sponsor the annual Easter Egg Hunt for ages 10 and under on this Saturday, March 19 in Williamston’s Mineral Spring Park.

Ages and time schedules are as follows: under three - 9:30 a.m., ages four and five - 10 a.m., ages six and seven - 10:30 a.m., and ages eight to ten - 11 a.m.

Drawings for prizes and grand prizes will be held for each age group. At the conclusion of the last hunt, a drawing for a playhouse constructed by students at the Career and Technology Center will be held.

In case of inclement weather, the rain date for the event will be the following Saturday, March 26.

You are invited to the Southern Ball

The Williamston Area Historic Commission (WAHC) will sponsor a Southern Ball this Saturday, from 6-11p.m. at the Williamston Municipal Center Auditorium.

The event features a Grand March beginning at 7:30 p.m. led by Diane Lollis and Williamston Mayor Phillip Clardy.

The McGowans Band of Spartanburg, who have been performing music of the old South for three years, will fill the gymnasium with live music.

Spectators and dancers will enjoy the Virginia Reel and other period dances.

Some WAHC members will wear ball gowns which will add to the bygone atmosphere of the special occasion. Even visitors who do not dance are sure to enjoy listening to the music as well as watching others dance.

Members of several history based organizations including the Daughter of the Confederacy, Sons of the Confederacy and reenactor groups will reflect the time period.

Light refreshments will be served from 6-7:15 p.m., followed by the dance from 7:30 to11 p.m. Door prizes will also be awarded to lucky attendees. The event is open to the public. Period clothing is not required organizers said.

Tickets are available from WAHC members and will be available at the door at a cost of $8 for adults and $5 for students.

The Williamston Area Historic Commission is a non-profit organization which focuses on preserving history of the area.

Proceeds from the Southern Ball will go toward future projects. 

The organization is planning to provide a flagpole and lighting in the Williamston Cemetery as one of their next projects. They are also working to get the Gossett St. Scool building on the Historic Register.

They also helped provide grave markers for confederate soldiers buried in the Williamston Cemetery.

Officers of the WAHC are Carolyn Duncan, president; Pam Owens, secretary; Leah Clardy, treasurer and Johnnie Bell, vice-president. For more information call 847-9157.

 

 

 

 

 

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