By Charlie Morrison
The James Island Public Service District (JIPSD) Commission presented seven new firemen to the public at their meeting on Monday, August 10, adding to perhaps the District’s biggest resource, its employees. And while for a brief time the seven-member Commission turned their attention to their new talent, it again spent a majority of the meeting in closed-off executive session discussing the fate of another hire, longtime attorney Trent Kernodle.
Off and on all year, the JIPSD has been considering what to do with Kernodle, who has worked as the body’s attorney since 1990, but tendered his resignation in January. He later reapplied for the position. In the end, the Commission again shot down a pair of applicants for JIPSD’s vacant attorney position, Kernodle’s firm and the Columbia-based Pope-Flynn Group, in favor of a change in the way the Commission operates. Voting to return the power to hire the Commission’s legal representation to the District Manager, Robert Wise. The contentious vote carried 4-3, with Commissioners Inez Brown-Crouch, McMillan, and Eugene Platt voting in the dissent.
The vote came after another in what has been a series of exhaustive meetings, with the Commission sometimes spending up to an hour in closed, executive session discussing what to do about Kernodle’s resignation, his attempts to reapply, and the legal questions before the Commission.
“We need to make a decision,” said Commissioner Carter McMillan. “Why are we in this place? We all know why were in this place, but we need to make this decision ourselves. It’s what we were elected to do.”
Commissioner Donald Hollingsworth and others decryied the repeated inquiry into the issue of nepotism. “There are some terms being thrown around tonight that I have a lot of problems with,” said Hollingsworth at the July 27 meeting of the JIPSD. “Number one, someone needs to learn what nepotism is, and the other thing was the conflict of interest. How many times to we need to write a letter to the states Attorney General to get the interpretation that says there’s no conflict of interest. It’s already been outlined what can be done and what can’t be done.”
However at last Monday’s meeting Hollingsworth himself was forced to face the issue. The Commission received notice last week from the S.C. Ethics Commission that it was looking into a possible ethics violation with respect to the process employed by the body in hiring an attorney. Hollingsworth himself received a call from a representative of the S.C. Ethics Commission directing him to read into the meeting minutes a pair of letters to avoid further censure.
The first letter was one stating first-term Commissioner Kay Kernodle would recuse herself from any votes involving her husband, attorney Trent Kernodle. The second applied to all Commission members, and stated for the record that no member of the Commission would use his or her office at the PSD to aid a family member either directly or through a company in which he or she has an interest, in benefitting financially.
The letters are a reminder to the public that the Commission and the commissioner in question will do the right thing when faced with decisions. By all accounts they should have been read back on January 12, when during the first meeting of this duly elected body, Kay Kernodle was sworn into her position.
The Ethics Commission also contacted Commissioner Bill “Cubby” Wilder, who like Kay Kernodle, was elected to his seat in November of 2014. His inquiry with respect to Wilder involved Trent Kernodle providing Wilder pro bono legal assistance with a personal matter, (Trent Kernodle has also represented Commissioner June Waring in matters related to her private affairs).
It was at the January 12 meeting that the trouble for the PSD began. When the question of whether or not the PSD keeping both Kernodles was tantamount to nepotism arose Trent Kernodle stood up and distributed copies of a letter he’d sequestered before the Christmas holiday.
Without the Commissioners’ knowledge Kernodle had sent a letter on behalf of the body to the state’s Attorney General Alan Wilson, requesting an interpretation of the situation from a legal perspective. The letter was sent on Nov. 19, the day after Commissioner Platt warned of the issue. The letter described the situation accurately, yet omitted one key component, that in addition to serving on the Commission and being married to Trent Kernodle, wife Kay also worked for his firm, Kernodle, Root, and Coleman.
The Attorney General responded in a letter dated Dec. 22. that outlined his office’s interpretation of the law, but only after stating plainly that it was merely an interpretation. The JIPSD could proceed legally stated Wilson in the letter, without violating S.C. law, but should do so only with extreme caution.
That he’d acquired the interpretation without the Commission’s go-ahead was one matter, but Commissioner Carter McMillan brought up another during the Jan. 12 meeting, one buried in the fine print at the bottom of the page relating to the Commission’s role as the hiring agent for the District, and that’s when Kernodle snapped.
“You are a pain in the butt,” said Trent Kernodle to McMillan. The comment left many in the room aghast, and first Platt then Hollingsworth asked attorney to apologize to McMillan, but Kernodle wouldn’t accommodate them. He instead chose to resign and his wife, who Kernodle himself had sworn in only months prior, followed shortly behind him.
For all the drama that night entailed, Kernodle did offer an apology the next day, sort of, as it made no mention of the event nor McMillan specifically. “After an evening’s reflection, and several telephone calls from people whose opinion I value I offer the following: A certain statement I made in response to a question by a particular sitting Commissioner was impolite, ungentlemanly, and did not reflect the particular set of values I have chosen to live by. For this reason, I offer my apology to the Commission,” wrote Kernodle in the letter.
Commissioner Kernodle asked for and was granted her seat back on Commission.
For the next few meetings, the JIPSD discussed what to do about the vacancy. They continued denying requests from Kernodle to reassume his position, but ultimately mollified them by allowing him to reapply for the position later in the process.
In the meantime, one Commissioner who had made up his mind was Commissioner Eugene Platt. Platt stated he’d come to the conclusion that the husband and wife tandem should not serve the PSD, at least not simultaneously. For that comment Platt received an email from Trent Kernodle dated Jan. 30, Platt described as “threatening.”
Platt filed a complaint with the S.C. Ethic Commission soon after. It remains unclear if that prompted the August inquiry from the state body.
Given her fellow Commissioners forgave her the resignation, it’s no surprise they also forgave Kay Kernodle the improper votes she cast over the next couple of months on the issue of hiring an attorney. Twice she participated in quorums of the body that voted down other, qualified applicants for the position over the summer.
May was a busy month for the JIPSD’s Kay Kernodle. Not only did the Commissioner cast a “no” vote in the 3-3 decision not to hire Williams and Walsh, she became embroiled, as did others, in the Town of James Island tax proposal. Though she serves currently as the District’s liaison to the Town of James Island, her comments on May 21 about Mayor Bill Woolsey regarding the tax question call into question that choice.
In July, the Commission kicked off a second Request for Proposal process, with Williams and Welch being the sole applicant in their initial request. Not only was attorney Kernodle back in for the second go around, he had regained support from Commissioner Platt, who’d changed his tune from January and now referred to his choice of keeping both members of the Kernodle family versus losing them both as “the lesser of two evils.”
Kernodle, Root, and Coleman are back on the roster of applicants as is Columbia-based firm the Pope-Flynn Group. Both had presented at the prior week’s meeting of the JIPSD Ways and Means Committee, but neither was able to acquire the votes to secure the position.
JIM did reach out to Trent Kernodle to comment on the situation but he declined. “I figure you will write whatever (Mayor) Woolsey tells you,” said Kernodle in way of a response.
For information on upcoming meetings of the JIPSD see the District’s website at www.JIPSD.org.