Power struggle may change law

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COLUMBIA --- A Barnwell County official says he might push to change state law to prevent fights like the one that ended last month when the county's clerk of court was found to have unintentionally violated the state Ethics Reform Act.

The state Ethics Commission upheld a charge filed by Barnwell County Councilman Thomas Williams in 2006 accusing George Fickling of failing to disclose the portion of his salary that came from federal child-support-enforcement funds, which are administered by the South Carolina Department of Social Services.

The Ethics Commission dismissed another charge against Mr. Fickling, which accused him of knowingly using those funds to raise his salary.

The ruling concluded a nearly three-year battle between Mr. Fickling and the county council, which led to a lawsuit and a settlement. Mr. Fickling, who retired Dec. 31, said he feels vindicated and that he postponed his retirement to see the conflict through to its conclusion.

"It was a great disappointment to have to go through that," said Mr. Fickling, who held the post 17 years. "The whole issue was fruitless and frivolous."

Mr. Williams said the case shows the need for greater accountability from elected officials. Council members are powerless when it comes to holding elected officials such as Mr. Fickling accountable, Mr. Williams said.

"That's the issue," he said. "We're mandated to give them the money, but then they can do anything they want to do."

Mr. Fickling says that's the way it should be. His advice for his successor, Rhonda McElveen, is to "stand firm and protect the office's autonomy and the levels of authority that are properly in place."

Mr. Williams said he might ask Rep. Lonnie Hosey, D-Barnwell, and Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, to introduce legislation to give county councils more control.

Reach Sarita Chourey at (803) 727-4257 or sarita.chourey@morris.com.


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