New deal for landscaper has $11,784 in back pay

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By Greg Summers

HEATH SPRINGS – Town officials have signed a new contract with fired and rehired landscaper Darren Sowell, far more specific than the old arrangement and including $11,784 in back pay.
The amount that Heath Springs pays for municipal landscaping services will remain at $47,000 a year, and the new deal will run through October 2020, just as the old contract did.
Officials announced Thursday night at a special town council meeting that the contract had been signed. Sowell, owner of Sowell’s Landscape and Lawn Care in Kershaw, met with council in executive session behind closed doors to discuss the changes. No votes were taken on the matter.
The contract, dated April 25, was signed by Sowell, Mayor Eddie Moore and council members Peggy Bowers, Iva Drakeford and Tameka Morrow.
The back-pay provision covers January through March of this year. Sowell did some work in March, after he was rehired, but none in January or February.
Paying Sowell for months when he did no work didn’t sit well with Bowers.
“He was let go,” Bowers said Friday, noting that council abruptly fired Sowell last fall on a 4-0 vote.
Council rehired him Feb. 28 in a 3-2 vote that Bowers and then-council member Elaine Lehr opposed. Lehr resigned three weeks later, in part citing the dispute.
“My boss wouldn’t pay me if I didn’t work, and I’m just not in favor of that part,” Bowers said.
Sowell could not be reached for comment Friday. According to a recording on his phone, the voice mailbox was full and would not accept messages.
Moore was also unavailable Friday. He left Thursday’s hour-long meeting early because he was not feeling well.
Drakeford serves as mayor pro tem and filled in for Moore to make the announcement that the contract had been signed.
She acknowledged that council will take some heat for giving Sowell the back pay, but said it was the right decision, given the circumstances that led to his firing.
“We’re just doing the right thing. He [Sowell] wasn’t let go because of poor performance, but because of a disagreement he had with the mayor,” Drakeford said Friday.
Morrow agreed with Drakeford that a wrong needed to be righted.
“I see it that way too,” Morrow said. “Two grown men had a disagreement, and the situation put council in an awkward moment. It’s definitely been a learning experience for all of us.”
Bowers disagreed with that assessment, saying she voted to fire Sowell because of job performance.
“We’re supposed to be stewards of taxpayer money,” she said. “That means we are responsible to make sure that Heath Springs citizens get what they pay for.”

Six-month saga 
The six-month landscaping saga has been confusing and mysterious. There was little explanation back in October when Sowell was fired, though he and town officials have had several disputes in the past over work issues and billings.
After the Feb. 28 vote to hire him back, Moore told The Lancaster News that the firing resulted from a personal “misunderstanding” he had with Sowell on Sept. 25 – the day that town hall was renamed for former Mayor Ann Taylor.
Moore apologized to Sowell in writing for an argument over landscaping for the event, which happened on a day when Sowell’s wife was having emergency surgery.
“It was unprofessional (of me)…. This whole thing was personal, and I just want to apologize to everyone,” Moore said in an interview.
At the same time, however, Bowers and Lehr said they voted to fire Sowell because they weren’t satisfied with his work and how much it was costing the town.
After his rehiring, Sowell pressured town council for a broader apology in March, saying the controversy was damaging his business.
Sowell threatened to air grievances against town officials in a four-page statement that he submitted to The Lancaster News.
While a few sentences from Sowell’s letter were quoted in TLN’s news coverage, it was never published because of  factual assertions that he refused to answer questions about during an interview.
And along the way, in the flurry of activity that was unusual for Heath Spring’s small-town politics, town officials violated the state’s open-meetings law twice.  
An unscheduled executive session was held Feb. 28, and an unannounced emergency meeting was held April 3. At the secret meeting, no minutes were recorded – a violation of the state’s open-records statute.
On Friday, Bowers said town officials must do a better job of “running the town like a business.”
The Lancaster News has twice filed Freedom of Information requests (March 1 and April 5) concerning the landscaping contract. Documents from the March 1 request were received that same day. The town has until May 2 to comply with the second request. 
Drakeford and Morrow both said it’s time for Heath Springs to close this chapter and move forward.
Sowell feels the same way. He said in a March 4 interview that he and Moore have worked out their differences and he was eager to get back to work for the town.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s taken them a little time to resolve this situation,” Sowell said then. “I honestly feel if we have a situation to talk, we can work things out.”

Contract changes
The new contract calls for Sowell to be paid $3,928 per month, the same as before, but it more clearly spells out his responsibilities.
Instead of just saying that he will provide “professional grounds upkeep and landscaping” for the town of Heath Springs, it mentions specific locations, such as the entrance sign on Kershaw Camden Highway, town hall, the train depot, the town’s walking trail/picnic shelter, and the park/tennis court area in front of town hall.
Contract sections on spraying weed killer, putting down and fluffing pine straw, hauling off leaves and limbs were removed.
Instead, Sowell’s company will be required to remove dead shrubbery and trees, prune trees along Main Street and at town hall, and clean and weed flowerbeds as directed by council.
The contract “is now what this council wants and what the people want,” Morrow said of the changes. “We have open communication with Sowell’s Landscaping, and I have confidence with what’s in this.
“But I’m going to be real, too. Having an eight-year contract with anybody is absurd. It should’ve been yearly, and once this one is over, that’s the way it needs to be done,” Morrow said.
Drakeford said she was also satisfied that everyone had agreed to the stipulations.
“We added in the walking trail and tennis court areas because we thought it was important,” she said.
Bowers and Morrow both said town council must also live up to its responsibilities. The contract specifically states that town council – not an administrator or employee – must provide Sowell with a quarterly performance checklist to convey the council’s level of satisfaction with his work.
The document also states that “two consecutive dissatisfaction ratings” are grounds for terminating the contract.
“As long as I’m on council, you can rest assured that I’m going to make sure that happens. This town is a customer and should get what it’s paying for,” Bowers said.
Morrow agreed, comparing the performance checklist to a job evaluation.
“It’s in the contract, and we have got to enforce it. If it’s in there, we’re going to follow it…. We can check this off the list because it’s done. We’re moving on,’ Morrow said.

Follow reporter Greg Summers on Twitter @GregSummersTLN or contact him at (803) 283-1156.