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South Carolina Editorial Roundup: Saturday, March 12

The Times and the Democrat

March 10

Note, yes! And fight fire with fire

The SC Forestry Commission warned a week ago that amid a dramatic increase in wildfires, the public is urged to exercise the utmost vigilance when carrying out outdoor burns of any kind.

Then, over the weekend, the SCFC issued a statewide red flag fire alert discouraging people from burning outdoors.

The agency recorded 106 wildfires that scorched more than 1,500 acres between Thursday and Saturday, adding to a busy season that has already seen more wildfires in the first three months of 2022 than the entire previous financial year (July 2020-June 2021).

South Carolina is at the height of what is traditionally called “wildfire season” throughout much of the southeastern United States. The majority of Palmetto State’s largest and most destructive wildfires have occurred in March and April.

Wildfire doesn’t have to be that expensive. That’s the message from Governor Henry McMaster and South Carolina experts. The Governor has proclaimed March 2022 Prescribed Fire Awareness Month in South Carolina.

A coalition of state, federal, and nongovernmental land management organizations under the South Carolina Controlled Fires Council called for the proclamation again in 2022 to raise awareness of the critical role fire plays in both the management of our natural resources and in the protection of life and property.

Prescribed or controlled burning is the skillful application of fire under predicted weather and fuel conditions to achieve specific forest and land management objectives. Prescribed burning is an ancient practice, notably used by Native Americans for crop management, insect and pest control, and hunting habitat enhancement, among other things.

The practice continues today under the direction of land managers who understand the weather, fuel loads, and atmospheric conditions suitable for carrying out such burns. These carefully applied lights are an important tool to help restore and maintain vital habitat for wildlife, including bobwhite quail and other grassland birds, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, gopher tortoises and red cockade woodpeckers. Besides the many wildlife species that require a fire-dependent habitat, there are many plants that only thrive in regularly burned forests.

Prescribed burning improves public safety by reducing or even eliminating fuel loads, thereby making a wildfire in that area impossible or unlikely for some time thereafter. And wildfires are generally less destructive on areas that have been prescribed burned. Wildfires often lose intensity or die out when they reach areas that have been prescribed for burning.

“Prescribed burning is not only the most effective and economical wildfire protection because it reduces accumulated fuels,” McMaster said in its proclamation, “but it is also a key tool in the managing and maintaining the ecological integrity of South Carolina’s forests, grasslands, farmlands, and wildlife habitats.

Darryl Jones, SCFC’s forest protection chief, said about 500,000 acres are burned each year in South Carolina – most on private land – but at least 1 million acres are expected to be burned each year. year.

“Each prescribed burn brings multiple benefits,” Jones said. “Most of SC’s woodlands are fire-adapted and regularly burned, historically speaking. When responsible land managers use prescribed fire as a tool under the right weather and fuel conditions, we can maintain wildlife habitat and forest health while reducing the severity of wildfires.”

Although prescribed burning cannot stop all wildfires, it is the best management tool available to prevent larger and more frequent outbreaks. As unusual as it may seem to the layman, preventing devastating wildfires is like fighting fire with fire.

Post and courier

March 9

The old law won’t solve the problem of corrupt sheriffs, but this new one could

It would be nice if we had a silver bullet to protect us from corrupt sheriffs.

Unfortunately, we don’t.

Despite the optimism expressed by some in a Monday report about an arcane state law that appears to empower state prosecutors to identify problems, we agree with prosecutors who call it unenforceable.

That doesn’t mean, however, that state lawmakers should repeal the law and be done with it.

This means they should use the law as a starting point for reforms that could make a real difference in helping to deter and, if that fails, identify and prosecute criminal acts and ethical missteps by sheriffs. After all, what we’re doing now isn’t working, as evidenced by 15 of 46 South Carolina sheriffs charged with crimes since 2010 (a 16th died before charges could be brought).

As Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith of the Post and Courier report, an 1837 law requires the attorney general and the state’s 16 circuit attorneys to conduct annual reviews of sheriffs, clerks, and deed registries to to report to the courts and the Legislature “the status of the said charges and the manner in which the said officers discharged their duties”.

The problem with the law is not that it is old. The law against murder is quite old, as are a number of other perfectly good laws; the legislature last reaffirmed this in 1962, when it moved it to a different place in the Code of Laws. As one analyst suggested, the Legislative Assembly’s decision to keep it on the books at least suggests lawmakers want someone to look over the sheriffs’ shoulders. The problem is that the law is too broad and too general.

While the intent may have been to elicit criminal charges—or at least to make sheriffs, clerks, and registries fear charges being laid—what the law actually requires of prosecutors is competence: are these agents doing the work they are required to do? Are they issuing arrest warrants and keeping the jail open? Are they registering deeds correctly? Are they keeping the courts operational? You know, the kind of questions their bosses would ask in an annual performance review if they were county employees who were hired and fired, as they should be, rather than elected.

It’s easy to imagine that if prosecutors actually conducted these annual performance reviews, they would turn them into the same kind of tick-off reviews that the legislature requires of state agencies in their annual accountability reports. These are filled with a slew of facts and figures that in most cases don’t say much – and certainly don’t reveal any abuse or even mismanagement that might be hiding beneath the surface.

A spokesman for the attorney general, Alan Wilson, noted that the attorney general’s office is a “prosecuting body, not a regulatory body.” That’s — and the time and money it would take to conduct even one such review properly, let alone three, in every county, every year — that’s why prosecutors in state asked the Legislature to either repeal the law or rewrite it and make it enforceable. .

H.3124, which has sat on a Senate subcommittee since the House passed it last year, repeals it.

That would be fine, as long as that’s not the end of the discussion. Even if we have to set up annual evaluations of the performance of local elected officials, it is not the notaries who should do them. It is not even clear that prosecutors are the ones who should perform the routine checks that would be much more likely to detect or deter criminal acts.

But someone has to perform these routine audits, even when there are no allegations of abuse. The State Inspector General might be the right person for the job. Even without such a mandate, the inspector general’s authority should be expanded to cover reviews of allegations against sheriffs and other local officials, as Governor Henry McMaster called for in his budget proposal. of State.

Lawmakers should also give county officials clearer authority to question — and disallow — sheriff’s office spending.

We believe the epidemic of abusive sheriffs justifies the money it would take to conduct routine external audits. But if our lawmakers can’t come up with the money for it after they finish handing out another round of tax cuts, they should at least try crowdsourcing: Require sheriffs to publish all of their expenses, from all sources, in online in an easily searchable database. .

This information is already public by law, but depending on how cooperative a given sheriff is – which, according to one cynic, is an indicator of what a sheriff needs to hide – it may take time for anyone to put the hand over it, then revise it. Mr. Bartelme and other Post and Courier reporters spent five months sifting through more than 5,000 pages of bank statements, receipts, lawsuits, campaign documents and IRS records from the 46 sheriffs in the state to uncover numerous examples of abuse, some of which have since been prosecuted. .

But that only covered a few years of records, and it’s been three years since that review — during which sheriffs have spent countless millions more in public funds with little or no scrutiny. Make it easier for the public to review this information, and there’s a good chance they can point prosecutors to questionable patterns that are well within their area of ​​expertise to investigate.