Indistrict expense fund.
Those three words dogged Greenwood County Council throughout more than half of last year. The topic centered on the creation and eventual dissolution of an expense (or slush) fund members of Council could opt to receive between 2008 and 2011. Some opted in, some opted out of the expense account billed as a means of covering travel and phone expenses incurred by councilmembers in the line of duty. Each could receive a monthly stipend of $750 after taxes.
Those three words - indistrict expense fund - continue to dog the county now with the revelation a document was found in a former employee's desk drawer. That document, written by former county attorney Chuck Watson and dated May 29, 2008, helped put the secreted fund in motion. Watson's memo was to former county treasurer Ken Spate and copied to former county manager Vic Carpenter.
Based on a decision by Council, Watson directed the treasurer to begin the monthly allocation, which was designed to replace the previous allocation of $200 per month for mileage and $70 per month for telephone expenses. (That the reimbursement rate climbed from $270 per month to $750 after taxes is a topic for another day.)
That piece of information, that memo's discovery, is not exactly a smoking gun in the continuing indistrict expense fund saga; however, it does add a piece to the puzzle, one of many pieces the Index-Journal has been missing since June 2012 when it filed a Freedom of Information Act request with county officials in an effort to discern precisely how and when the fund was established, as well as how and when the fund mysteriously ended in 2011.
Since that memo was written, the word "former" has come to apply to many people involved in the fund's creation and use. Watson, Spate and Carpenter are no longer with the county. Rhett Dominick no longer serves on Council, having been defeated by Mark Allison in the previous election. And with last November's election, two members of Council who opted to use the fund were ousted - Patrick Moody and Bob Jennings. Additionally, Jim Kier, who returned for a much-abbreviated stint as county manager following Carpenter's departure, left the county's employment.
It was Kier who at the 11th hour complied with the newspaper's FOIA request by providing an envelope with various documents. Those documents, which included minutes of county budget workshops relative to the timeframe of the fund's establishment, copies of ordinance provisions that allowed the county manager to establish the fund and a basic breakdown of the county's budget for 2008-09, shed no light whatsoever on how the fund came to be.
But given the latest information, we have to wonder how much effort was really exerted in complying with the FOIA. The 11th-hour drop would indicate little effort, especially in light of the fact only five days before the packet was delivered did Kier even attempt to gather any information from members of Council and Watson. He did receive the provisions of the ordinance establishing the fund, sent to him via email by Watson who was, at the time, out on sick leave.
This latest chapter in the fund's story has yet to be completed. Watson told the newspaper the document it received this past week is legitimate, one he recalls writing and sending. What's more, Watson told the newspaper there are more documents related to the controversial fund. All that is required is for Council to waive the attorney-client privilege and the information can be released.
Those documents are purported to be digitally stored on a computer hard drive Watson left behind with treasurer Lisa White. It might have been helpful if Kier had examined Watson's files last year, when attempting to comply with the FOIA. As it is, Watson said he maintained and has in his possession a backup copy of all files he turned over to the county on the hard drive he gave to White.
Of course, we have asked county officials to waive that attorney-client privilege again and release any additional relevant documents. Whether the county wants to expend some staff time poring over what is on the hard drive (which should have been done last year and should be done now) or give Watson the all-clear to release what he has on his backup, the county should move quickly to dispense those documents in an effort to fully comply with last year's FOIA request.
Many players in this saga are gone, but maybe many telling documents that seemingly were missing are not. The sooner they are all released, the sooner those three words - indistrict expense fund - will quit dogging Greenwood County's elected and appointed officials, past and present.