County council, DSI conflict comes to close

  • Thursday, August 29, 2013

Jean Ott, the executive director of Dorchester Seniors, Inc., addresses Dorchester County Council at the special called meeting Monday. The DSI board of directors sits behind her. TAYLOR GRIFFITH/JOURNAL SCENE

After a year of back and forth, it seems the ongoing conflict between Dorchester County Council and Dorchester Seniors, Inc., has come to a close. At a special called County Council meeting Monday, the groups aired all of their issues and made resolutions toward moving forward.
Council Chairman Bill Hearn started the meeting with a summary of the issues.
The clash between the two groups originated from letters between Councilman Larry Hargett, his appointee to the DSI board of directors Marvin Johnson, the state Budget and Control Board and the Office of the Inspector General.
Although Johnson is a key player in the accusations, he has not attended a DSI board meeting in more than two years, according to Dorchester Seniors leadership.
In the letters, Councilman Hargett and Johnson accuse DSI of “apparent waste, abuse, mismanagement, illegal conduct and possible fraud.”
Both offices denied the requests for further investigation.
Although these accusations persisted, Chairman Hearn reiterated at the meeting that the rest of the council has yet to see any concrete evidence or specifics regarding the allegations.
He also claimed the council in its entirety was unaware of a continuing investigation facilitated by Councilman Hargett and Johnson, which other councilmembers confirmed.
“What are the concerns here? Are they racial? Are they financial? Are they about the board composition? We just don’t know,” Chairman Hearn said.
From a reexamination of the previous accusations, including additional comments from Councilman Hargett and Councilman Willie Davis, who serves as the council’s ex-officio member on the DSI board of directors, the concerns with DSI are related to the racial diversity of their administration, their finances and their employees’ eligibility to be involved with the state retirement system.
In order to qualify for the retirement program, an organization must be “a government agency or instrumentality.” Although Councilman Hargett and Johnson called the group’s eligibility into question in their letters, any doubts were quickly squashed at the meeting when it was pointed out that 14 members of the 21-member DSI board are directly influenced by the council, and the organization could not function as it does now without the county’s financial support.
“I would challenge anyone to say this council doesn’t have oversight when we control the purse strings. We look over the budget annually and annually we approve it or don’t approve it,” Councilman David Chinnis said.
“The response we got back is that there is no man behind the curtain, there is no nefarious intent,” he continued, referencing the letter from Inspector General Patrick Maley that called the concerns “a wedge issue to bring some outside investigative entity into the situation to look into DSI, a non-profit organization.”
Regarding racial concerns, Councilman Willie Davis spoke up.
“One of the concerns is not having any minority supervision. … I just don't believe 50 year’s after Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech that we can’t find a minority – whether they be Hispanic, African American or Asian – somebody, so that when people come they see someone who looks like them in a managerial position,” he said. “I think that is my right to my folk to ask that question, and I will continue to ask that question.”
Dorchester Seniors had concerns of their own, including Johnson’s continual membership on their board of directors, despite his chronic lack of attendance for more than two years.
According to Dorchester Seniors leadership, Johnson has attended 14 out of 53 board of directors meetings.
DSI confronted the council about the problem at their Aug. 12 meeting, where they questioned why the council would continue to unanimously reappoint a board member who refuses to attend meetings.
Councilman Hargett addressed the issue Monday and announced he would remove Johnson from the board as his appointee and find a replacement “within a month.”
The councilman said he did not have a replacement in mind yet, but is glad to “move forward with a new appointee.”
For DSI board of directors Chairman Robert Ford, the meeting cleared up all of the group’s concerns.
“Most of the issues we had, most of you councilmen answered them for us. One of our issues was to see why Mr. Johnson wasn’t coming [to meetings] and was still on the board; Mr. Hargett cleared that up. The letters that we got up there, the Inspector General cleared that up for us. So we would like to thank you and we would also like to start working on the issues that can help us move forward and better serve the citizens of this community,” he said.
The meeting ended on amicable terms with both groups hoping to keep open lines of communication in the future to ensure the success of Dorchester Seniors, Inc., and its mission to serve the senior citizens of Dorchester County.
“This is what we were hoping for,” said Jean Ott, DSI’s executive director. “I’m glad we can finally move forward and have a resolution.”

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