Thursday, August 15, 2013
The battle between Dorchester County Councilman Larry Hargett, appointee Marvin Johnson and Dorchester Seniors, Inc., resurfaced Monday after the group confronted County Council about letters they received last Thursday.
The letters, which the group received through the Freedom of Information Act, are correspondence between Councilman Hargett, Johnson, and the office of the Inspector General of South Carolina from April of this year.
The letters are a formal complaint from Councilman Hargett and Johnson alleging the group’s “waste, abuse, mismanagement, illegal conduct and possible fraud.” Although the response to the letter instructed the men to stop their inquiries – “This office will take no action on this issue” – the men wrote back asking the inspector general’s office to reconsider.
Despite their confrontation with the council Monday, Dorchester Seniors said they’re not looking to start a fight.
“We are not angry with County Council by any means. We just need to get whatever this is resolved so County Council and us can both move on,” said Jean Ott, the executive director of Dorchester Seniors, Inc. “We don’t want to rehash the past, we want to move forward.”
Leadership from Dorchester Seniors clarified that when they refer to “they,” or the council in general, the group is referring to Councilman Hargett and Johnson, who are the only two to make allegations against them.
“We know this isn’t the whole council,” Ott said. “Two people – out of all of County Council, out of all of our board – we are looking at two people who have been very busy trying to get benefits away from our employees and take the structure away from our organization.”
The group has been asking County Council for a meeting for more than a year, according to DSI officials, and they repeated their request Monday.
Both parties confirmed Council Chairman Hearn reached out the organization Tuesday to schedule that meeting.
“I think you’ll find that most of the council for the last three or four moths regarded the issue as calmed down. Unbeknownst to us, there’s still letters being sent,” he said.
Both groups hope the meeting will result in some answers about what DSI treasurer Tony Oglietta called a “vendetta” and “tirade” against the organization.
“Relative to Johnson and Councilman Hargett, I’ve never gotten the real reason why this is happening,” said Council Chairman Hearn. “Why are they continuing to pursue this approach, what are their concerns? I don’t really know.”
Dorchester Seniors is also confused where the issues are coming from, citing their consistency in management and Johnson’s lack of attendance as reasons why the allegations must be false.
According to Ott, Johnson has a chronic lack of attendance at the board of directors meetings.
“Councilman Hargett was on our board for over two years, and it’s functioning exactly the same way now as it was then,” she said, referring to Councilman Hargett’s term as the board’s ex-officio member from the council. “If he says we’re wrong now, we would have been wrong then, too.”
Dorchester Seniors has a complicated involvement with the county. While it’s a private, non-profit organization, County Council formed the group in 1980 to provide services to area seniors.
DSI has a contractual relationship with the county that includes funding, as the result of Resolution 97-22 from 1997. The resolution called for a referendum to appear on the ballot, which would “support Dorchester County Council levying up to an additional 2 mills of ad valorem property taxes for the purpose of creating and operating senior citizens centers.”
Dorchester Seniors, Inc., is the facilitator of this resolution. It manages and provides service through two publically available senior citizens centers – one in Summerville and one in St. George – as mandated in the resolution.
Neither of the centers is owned by the county; the Faith Sellers Senior Center located in Summerville is owned by the town and leased to the county in a 20-year contract, according to Oglietti.
The county also plays a role in the leadership of Dorchester Seniors. Each county council member appoints one person to the group’s board of directors, in addition to the ex-officio member from the council.
“I believe that when council sits down with the board and we both find out what the other is doing we will finally be on the same page,” said Councilman Willie Davis, who has served as the council’s ex-officio member on the DSI board since 2009.
Johnson, who has been making accusations about the legitimacy of DSI with Councilman Hargett, is the councilman’s appointee to the organization’s board of directors. He has not attended a meeting in two years, according to DSI records.
“I’m concerned that things continue to come from an appointee who hasn’t attended a board meeting in two years,” said Council Chairman Hearn.
Councilman Davis agreed.
“I still believe that if you’re going to correct something you’ve got to come to the table,” he said.
Regardless of the legitimacy of the accusations, which both groups said they are hoping to discuss at the upcoming meeting, the damage already may have been done.
“We’re just concerned that other state agencies will take these rumors as gospel,” Ott said.
Council Chairman Hearn echoed the same concerns. “I do take this personally because it can cause some real harm to those who don’t deserve it.”
Regardless of the conflict, Ott is confidant DSI will move forward: “Our mission is to serve the senior citizens of Dorchester County and we will continue to do it. We just want to do it in the county, want to work with organizations in the county, and not have to do damage control based on two peoples’ beliefs and allegations.”
The Journal Scene attempted to contact Councilman Hargett and Johnson, but neither had returned calls as of deadline on Thursday morning.