How does the public keep from being duped again?
That is the question for Beaufort County Council and the S.C. State Elections Commission after Gerald “Jerry” Stewart served at least four months as council vice chairman after buying a home and registering to vote in North Carolina.
Obviously, the honor system does not work for Beaufort County Council when it comes to upholding the public’s expectation that an elected official will reside in the county he or she helps govern.
Anyone who offers for public office should understand this principle, and to act otherwise raises questions on every vote taken, and on the motives of everyone on council.
On Aug. 16, 2017, Stewart and his wife purchased a house in Lewisville, N.C. That’s when he should have quit. But he continued to serve his entire third term representing Sun City and the Okatie area, through Dec. 31, 2018.
In December 2017, his residence in Beaufort County sold.
S.C. state law requires council members to register to vote and to reside in the county or district they’re elected to serve.
In June 2018, Stewart voted in South Carolina, using a voter registration that listed his address as the Bluffton property he’d sold the previous December.
He registered to vote in North Carolina in September 2018, and voted in the Nov. 6 election as a N.C. elector.
In that same year, the Directory of County Officials listed Stewart’s address as a property in Sun City owned by someone else.
In February 2018, Stewart listed the Bluffton home he sold two months earlier as his address in his Statement of Economic Interests with the S.C. Ethics Commission.
And, to our knowledge, there have been no repercussions for Stewart’s action.
Stewart, it seems to us, was a North Carolinian when he continued to hold a key vote in sensitive issues on a dysfunctionally split Beaufort County Council. A distinct faction of the council counted on his vote. He was chairman of the Finance Committee and the Executive Committee. But, by any common definition, he did not live here.
In 2018, Stewart pressed for Josh Gruber to be named the county administrator. He pushed for a sweetheart deal with the county for landowner Robert Graves for the development of Pepper Hall Plantation on the banks of the Okatie River. He voted for a 10-acre park at White Hall in Beaufort. And he was the only elected official in Beaufort County to vote against a ban on single-use plastic carryout bags.
Other council members say they did not know what was going on until a former state legislator sent them an email questioning Stewart’s residency. That was right before Stewart’s final council meeting. We were told that County Attorney Tom Keaveny informed the council prior to the meeting that Stewart was not eligible to serve because he was not a resident. Stewart recused himself from the entire meeting, citing concerns raised about his eligibility to vote on Beaufort County matters because he was a legal resident of North Carolina and had been for several months.
It should never have come to that. What took place was wrong. It’s illegal. And the consequences — to Stewart, to the County Council, to the county — should be measurable and public.
State law must change. It must be clear to elected officials that they cannot continue to serve a district when their primary residence is elsewhere and they lease space simply to have a local address.
Beaufort County Council has been burned by this issue before, and it needs to stop.
In the late 1980s, council member Willard W. “Bill” Greenwood of Hilton Head Island bought a house in Aiken days before being elected to a third term. His home on Hilton Head sold within a year, and his wife moved to Aiken. But Greenwood said he rented a room in Forest Beach and commuted to see his ill wife on the weekends.
The S.C. Elections Commission ruled that Greenwood could hold his Beaufort County Council seat if he were registered to vote here. Greenwood was deemed eligible for a voter registration card because he maintained an address here.
But County Council took it to court, seeking a declaratory judgment to determine the validity of his council votes.
County Master-in-Equity Thomas Kemmerlin Jr. ruled that Greenwood was eligible to serve on County Council, and he completed his term.
With today’s knowledge of Stewart’s move, the public deserves that kind of clarity. And we need to know what it will take to keep this from happening again because, on its face, this is wrong.