Attorney general opinion refutes Aiken 'city employee' decision

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Friday, June 21, 2013

AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- A simple question is causing big debate in Aiken. Is it illegal for Aiken City Council members to talk to city employees?

In a February letter, Aiken City Attorney Gary Smith said it was.

"So, obviously, we have a city manager and city attorney, both people being paid by the bureaucracy, squaring off against the elected officials," said political activist and concerned Aikenite Jane Page Thompson.

Elected official Dick Dewar set off the debate. The city councilman paid a trip to the Aiken Department of Public Safety to find out firsthand why a number of officers had quit. He was later told by the city attorney to cease and desist, unless he got permission from City Manager Richard Pearce first.

"That, to me, is a sure sign that there's something wrong with the power structure of the City of Aiken," says Thompson.

Thompson says City Attorney Smith was wrong, and an opinion recently issued by the South Carolina Attorney General's office seems to agree.

The opinion says that while council members like Dewar can't interfere with City Manager Pearce's direct supervision of city employees, but Dewar would have the authority to gather information and investigate topics that may come before city council by speaking with city employees.

"I'm so glad this opinion was issued because it frees up our elected officials in the City of Aiken to ask questions and to work on the behalf of the people that elected them," Thompson said.

Thompson hopes Councilman Dewar and the others will be allowed to talk to city employees again soon, so they can do the job she elected them to do.

"That's why we have a representative democracy. We don't want too much authority in one position, and I think, before this opinion, the city manager was gaining too much authority," Thompson said of Pearce.

Pearce wouldn't say much, but he told News 12 that he hopes to continue what he says is a good relationship with the city council.

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