Monday, August 10, 2009

'My job was to make the call and I made it'

Bluffton Today

The ruckus over the replacement of the clerk of court was a big story last week. There was a lot of commentary that seemed to simply rise from the steamy summer plough mud. Even the usually astute editorial board of Bluffton Today managed to wander off into the weeds on this one. Here’s the real story:

One of the well-documented features of Beaufort County is the fact that we are blessed with outstanding law enforcement, as well as an exceptional judicial system. “Sheriff of the Year” PJ Tanner and Solicitor Duffie Stone are both experienced public servants who enjoy excellent reputations for efficiency and fairness. The court has recently completed implementation of a new high-tech case management system that prompted Chief Justice Jean Toal to personally commend the Beaufort County Clerk of Court for her role in the project.

Unfortunately, that same Clerk of Court resigned abruptly last week with the commencement of an investigation into financial impropriety in the Clerk’s office.

Our shock and disappointment was short lived as the urgency of finding an interim replacement became more apparent. While Probate Judge Frank Simon, by law, took over the job temporarily, he made it clear to me that he would do what was required but the extra assignment would burden his office.

As both Senator Davis and I were out of town, I asked Rep. Shannon Erickson to be the point person on the preliminary search. She was to consult with the Sheriff and the Solicitor to begin a list of possible candidates. Prudence dictated that current members of the Clerk’s office not be considered as the investigation was ongoing and staff might be placed in a compromising position if called as witnesses.

As these things sometimes work out, the list turned out to be short, because the Sheriff and Solicitor, as well as a good selection of lawyers, all suggested the same candidate. My conversations with Rep. Erickson, Sheriff Tanner, Solicitor Stone, and later on, Senator Davis convinced me that we had our recommendation for the governor. Rep. Erickson and I then attempted to bring the rest of the delegation up to speed. Summer is vacation time and our efforts initially resulted in a lot of phone tag. I subsequently returned all the calls I received from delegation members, and all but one of those with whom I spoke were in agreement with the original finding.

An apparent source of confusion was that some folks thought this was a delegation decision-- it was not. My charge, as delegation chairman, was to seek the best and most authoritative advice, and make a recommendation to the governor based on my findings. Any members of the delegation, or members of the public, for that matter, were free to also recommend anyone they liked. My attempts to include the rest of the delegation were more about courtesy, and less about a required consensus.

Last Friday, the governor endorsed my decision and acted upon our recommendation. Our local court was made whole in a prudent and timely fashion.

Most of the time, my job is to listen to you and represent the collective wisdom of the good folks of Beaufort County. In this case, my charge was to seek the particular wisdom of seasoned public servants to replace a vital cog in the machinery of justice in our community. The task was time sensitive, as Judge Simon had helped me understand. My job was to make the call and I made it.