Chief Justice sinks county plan
A final resolution of the courthouse office space question is in limbo as Dorchester County Council finds itself lodged between its expectation of autonomously allocating funds and the state chief justice's demand that it renovate the courthouse in a specific manner.
Council had all but concluded the drawn-out question of how to create space within the St. George courthouse for new at-large Circuit Court Judge Maite Murphy, wife of Rep. Chris Murphy, while taking the least amount of space away from others in the courthouse.
It voted in committee May 28 in favor of a revised plan, submitted by Probate Judge Mary Blunt, that would shave a few thousand dollars off the initial $12,000 estimate.
But Chief Justice Jean Toal issued an administrative order May 29 saying council was usurping the authority of the clerk of court to designate space within the courthouse.
The clerk is an elected position charged with assignment of rooms within the courthouse and maintenance and upkeep of the courthouse.
The county must, by law, make alterations “deemed advisable, or which may become necessary” to the courthouse. The law doesn't indicate who would deem the alterations advisable.
Toal's order states council must use its $12,000 to “effectuate the office assignments designated by the Clerk.”
If the $12,000 isn't enough, the clerk “will promptly notify” council “so that it can consider making further appropriations,” Toal wrote.
Toal referenced a March 11 letter submitted by Clerk Cheryl Graham that outlined a new floor plan for the courthouse.
The March 11 plan was “offensive,” said Councilman David Chinnis.
The plan council finally agreed to created an office of 1,100 square feet for the circuit judge, including space for a clerk and administrative assistant.
The March 11 plan created an office of 1,449 feet.
“That is probably the average size house of a taxpayer in Dorchester County,” Chinnis said.
Moreso than the size of the office, the county is concerned about the precedent that could be set.
Toal's order doesn't require the county to spend more than the previously agreed-to $12,000. But neither does it say what would happen if the $12,000 were insufficient and council refused to allocate more.
“If we agree to this we are setting a precedent that will harm every county council in South Carolina,” Chinnis said.
Blunt's attorney, John Moylan, previously sent a letter to the county arguing the clerk “does not have authority to 'designate space' when that designation involves alterations or additions.” Drawings by Graham were clearly attempting to make alterations, he wrote.
Only county council has the authority to make physical changes to the courthouse, Moylan wrote.
Chinnis attempted to get around the “designation” problem by creating a new drawing of the May 28 plan that replaced specific names with generic descriptions like “office space.”
“The names in the spaces are simply identifiers to aid in discussion OR they denote the existing use of space previously allocated by the Clerk of Court and DO NOT denote assignment of space,” he wrote in a prepared motion that he never got to read.
Instead, council voted to defer a final vote on the May 28 plan until after it received legal advice in executive session.
After a lengthy executive session, part of which included Blunt, council simply didn't vote at all on the issue.