Richland County Council At Work

Note: The following is the second part of an inside look at why Richland County Council agreed to a $175,000 out of court settlement with disgruntled former employee Justine Jones after Councilman Norman Jackson illegally interfered in day-to-day County operations to ensure that Jones received benefits above and beyond any other County employee. The story first appeared on Quorum.com, investigative reporter Ron Aiken’s web journal. It is reprinted in The Voice by permission.

COLUMBIA – In May 2014, Council approved the idea of creating a new Office of Small Business Opportunity (OSBO). The new OSBO office would house the SLBE program, among others, and Jackson tasked Jones specifically with conceptualizing the idea for Council with the idea that she would become director of the new department. An unintended side effect of the planned new program was that Jones technically came back under the authority of Ancheta — briefly — when it came to authorizing payment for a proposed “disparity study” Jones wanted.

When Jones sent an email to McDonald on May 22 asking for an update on her funding request for the study’s completion, he instead forwarded it to Ancheta for a response, bringing her into conversation with Jones about a project in which Jones’ sought authorization to commit $250,000 for a study, in partnership with the City of Columbia, about economic disparity. In an email dated May 23, Ancheta posed several questions to Jones about the scope and nature of the job, contract specifics, management responsibilities, vendor selection and partnership percentages, making sure Jones knew “there are currently no funds dedicated for this purpose in the FY 15 recommended budget, so we’ll need to come up with a Budget Motions List item rather quickly to get this before Council for their consideration,” Ancheta wrote. Ancheta recommended meeting the following week to discuss answers to the questions raised and for her to provide possible meeting times.

Jones was not amused in her reply to Ancheta later that Friday afternoon.

“I’ve been focused on processing applications all day, coupled with taking care of a number of other major tasks related to the program,” Jones wrote. “Therefore, I’ll have to take a closer look at your requests and respond more thoroughly over the weekend.

“I know you’re not up to speed so I’ll take this opportunity to let you know both Tony and the Council have directed me to

work directly (emphasis hers) with Tony regarding the SLBE program, the OSBO and the DS which is the reason I’ve been working with Tony over the last several months on these items. Council have specifically directed me to report to him and Tony agreed it would be best to do so as well. All other issues/items I have always addressed with the appropriate assistant and will continue to do so going forward.”

Former Richland County Administrator Tony McDonald

The following Monday, Jones forwarded that exchange to Councilwoman Julie-Ann Dixon. On Thursday, Dixon sent an email to Jackson expressing her distress that Jones “informed me she will have to speak with her current new supervisor Miss Roxanne.

“According to what Council approve was that Ms. Jones to report (sic) directly to Mr. Tony McDonald. I would like to know with six councilmember voted to have this approval change (sic) and when was it presented to the entire council.”

Jackson wasted no time in leaping to Jones defense. An hour after receiving Dixon’s email, Jackson wrote back to Dixon and copied it to McDonald.

“Ms. (Councilwoman Joyce) Dickerson and I will schedule a meeting with Mr. McDonald tomorrow,” he wrote. Jackson said he was especially worried about the situation “giving (sic) the history of Roxanne’s behavior to Ms. Jones I am cautioned and concern (sic) that this will fall back to the abuse of the past.

“I will remind Mr. McDonald of Councils (sic) will and personally my concern with Roxanne’s past history. I have been discriminated before and it’s not nice and it (sic) am sure this administration will not tolerate or turn a blind eye and allow this to happen or continue.”

Despite the fact he later would agree in writing with Jones’ termination for cause and refute her complaints of racial discrimination both during her internal grievance and in the County’s official EEOC rebuttal of Jones’ claims, in an emailed response to Jackson the same afternoon McDonald capitulated to Jackson’s accusations without a fight.

“Thank you for your confidence in me, and you are correct…this administration will absolutely not tolerate discrimination in any way, shape or form,” McDonald wrote. “Please let me know when you and Ms. Dickerson would like to meet tomorrow and I will adjust my calendar accordingly. I feel sure we can resolve any misunderstanding once we meet.

“Thanks again.”

For a longtime Richland County source familiar with internal racial politics, McDonald’s acquiescence wasn’t unusual. In fact, it was to be expected.

Read Part II in The Voice next week. Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809. Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia and like Quorum on Facebook.