ULBRICH: Whatever happened to Home Rule?

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By Holley Ulbrich, special to Statehouse Report  |  Lurking in the shadows of the big issues, pension reform and roads, is a nagging continuing question that arose again in the context of a school district bill for Pickens County.

About six years ago at the request of a group of angry citizens, legislators stripped the Pickens County School Board of its three at-large seats, leaving it with six numbered seats.  After numerous citizen protests of this arbitrary action, this year’s General Assembly passed a bill to restore one seat as a numbered seat, making it seven and providing a tie breaker.


The particular issues in Pickens County don’t matter. What does matter is that changes in the structure of school governance can only be changed by this kind of special legislation.  Each county’s school system was defined by legislation specific to that county, including the number of districts, the size of the school board, whether there is a coordinating board, and whether board members are elected or appointed or some of each.  When it came to county councils and municipalities, these questions were decided by referendum, but no referenda were held for school districts.  The General Assembly is just one super school board when it comes to issues of governance.

So when some past governors have refused to sign such bills on the grounds that they are local legislation, forbidden by the Home Rule Act of 1974, they were ignoring the fact that there is no other way to make this kind of changes. The Home Rule Act, forced by national court cases requiring equal representation at all levels, ended the era of the county senator and the county delegation as the supreme authority in local matters.  But the General Assembly didn’t go any farther than absolutely necessary to delegate that power to the local level.

In this case, the outcome won’t matter. A veto by the governor can be easily overridden, because this legislation has the support of all legislators who represent some part of Pickens County. But it does raise the broader question of the substantial amount power of county delegations in local affairs even after the General Assembly supposedly gave that power to the locals more than 40 years ago.

School districts are prominent victims of the refusal of the General Assembly to delegate any power to local government, but they aren’t the only ones. County councils have to fund constitutional officers—sheriff, coroner, assessor, auditor, treasurer and probate judge—who are elected independently of the council and are therefore not accountable to the council, just the voters. County boards and commissions that were created by the legislature before 1974 are still staffed by appointees chosen by the county delegations, usually with pro forma approval from the governor. The Richland County Recreation Commission is in a crisis of citizen anger over decisions made by these commissioners, but the county council has no authority to remedy their concerns.

Legislators come home on weekends, but they spend a substantial amount of their time in Columbia.  Local officials are different.  We can buttonhole our school board and city and county council members at the post office, the drug store, even at church.  (I know. I served a term on Clemson City Council.) They are more likely than state legislators to be “un-elected” if citizens are dissatisfied.  Their actions can attract or repel new residents, because there are multiple places to live for those who work in larger cities like Greenville, Columbia and Charleston.  Mayors and county officials have to make sure that their offerings of services and amenities and their tax rates make them attractive to residents and businesses in order to thrive.

In many ways cities, counties, and school districts are the most responsive branches of government.  They deserve the authority to go with their accountability.

Holley Hewitt Ulbrich is an Alumni Distinguished Professor Emerita of Economics at Clemson University and a member of the Board of Directors of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.



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