COLUMBIA — Members of the Barnwell County Council violated a state prohibition against holding dual offices by serving on the hospital board and council simultaneously, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
Now it’s up to a circuit judge to figure out how big a shake-up the decision will bring for Barnwell County.
In oral arguments before the court in April, an attorney suggested a new county council election might be ordered. Past hospital board decisions also might be thrown out.
The conflict started two years earlier, when all seven council members – Freddie Houston, Lowell Jowers, Harold Buckmon, Keith Sloan, David Kenner, Travis Black and Joe Smith – voted to replace hospital board members with themselves because the board objected to the council’s plan to take the hospital into bankruptcy.
Buckmon later left the board, as did Black, who did not seek re-election to the council last year.
Ousted from the hospital board were Don Alexander, Catherine Mack, Kiffany Perlote, Steve Sloan, Jerry Martin, Richard Myers and Carolyne Williams. Alexander and several others brought the lawsuit against the council.
Some members of the council say their adversaries are obstructing the future of health care in Barnwell County and that the litigation has cost the public more than $300,000. They also contend that delays in closing the sale of the hospital to Resurgence Management Co. cost nearly $100,000 each month.
In 2009, a consultant was hired to improve the hospital’s financial health. Council members were looking at ways, along with Bamberg and Allendale counties, to close county hospitals and build a centralized regional hospital for the three counties.
The Barnwell County Council and the Barnwell County Hospital Board took steps to that end, but the ousted group argued that the measures had only hurt the hospital. For example, the council reduced the hospital’s operating funds by cutting its millage, according to court records.
The appeal also argued that the council members discarded a proposal that would have designated the hospital as a critical care facility, which would have increased reimbursements from Medicaid and Medicare.