Council members should resign
Thursday, April 11, 2013 8:00 PM
That is the only just thing Greenwood County Council members Gonza Bryant, Edith Childs and Robbie Templeton can do in light of details contained in the state Ethics Commission's investigation into Council's indistrict expense fund and unrestricted use of more taxpayer dollars to fund whatever they deemed fit for "county purpose."
It seems 2008 was a banner year for County Council when it came to unethical behavior.
That was the year it established the indistrict expense fund, which was touted as a means to get fixed reimbursement for mileage and phone use but was really nothing but a means to double their salary without the public's knowledge.
It was the year Council also determined it was due a 3 percent pay raise afforded county employees, again without the public's knowledge. Legal? We'll see. Ethical? Not so likely.
And it was the year Council established a Council Fund Account (sometimes referred to as Council's "peculiar fund"), a deep-pocket source of taxpayers' dollars members could give out like so many parade participants tossing candies to the kids.
The trio - Bryant, Childs and Templeton - were party to activities that violated the public's trust, violated state law and further deceived the public in the aftermath as news of the indistrict fund surfaced.
These were not one-time missteps quickly corrected. No, these were deliberate and calculated self-serving steps, one of which - the indistrict expense fund - conveniently disappeared nearly three years into its lifespan as questions about its legitimacy began to surface with the arrival of newly elected councilmen.
And the peculiar fund? It, too, was a deliberate and calculated self-serving step that gave each councilman a pot of money (as much as $10,000) to spend for undefined, unrestricted uses loosely defined as "for a county purpose." Nice. Certainly, one could reason spending those dollars in ways that might ensure votes on Election Day falls within the guidelines of a "county purpose," if by "county purpose" a council member means his or her re-election is for the good of the county.
Lest the public think otherwise, consider these points:
* By state law, any increase in compensation must be done by way of an ordinance, brought up and voted on in public session. Instead, a few members of Council apparently came up with a recipe for the two funds in an administration and finance committee meeting.
* That committee meeting? In violation of the state's Freedom of Information Act as no minutes were taken. Convenient. Templeton and Bryant served on that committee at the time, but to the best of Templeton's recollection no vote on the funds was taken; yet, the funds became part of the county budget eventually adopted by Council.
* By law, elected officials are required to file SEIs (statements of economic interest) with the Ethics Commission every April for as long as they serve. So? Well, it is no small coincidence members of Council who participated in the "double my salary without the public's knowledge" scheme somehow forgot to include the income derived from the indistrict expense fund. That is, until the newspaper began its inquiry and caused a few sphincters to tighten up, resulting in amended financial reports being filed well after the fact.
In its report, the Ethics Commission determined the statute of limitations had run out on the indistrict expense issue; in other words, even though the fund was clearly a violation of state ethics and state law, no charges will be forthcoming. We'd like the Commission to revisit that, just to be sure, because even though the fund was established more than four years ago, it certainly was continued under a cloak of secrecy for nearly three years afterward. And again, we respectfully remind the public and remind the Commission, it only disappeared when it became evident a light was about to be shone on the fund's existence.But the Commission report did indicate charges could be forthcoming with respect to how Council Fund Account dollars were spent. It will be no surprise to learn some of those funds went to special interest groups and served no real overall positive county purpose.
So, why should Bryant, Childs and Templeton all resign? Why should they not wait to see if any charges come?
It's simple, really. They will likely plead ignorance and say they were the victims of bad advice from then-county manager Vic Carpenter. After all, Carpenter is the one who said Council members need not turn in receipts for fixed reimbursement dollars.
Quite possibly Carpenter was not thorough in doing his job, but neither was Council. These three members of Council were not new to the job; they had years under the belt before they established these funds. In other words, they aren't novices and surely the funds should have been a red flag.
Did they ask Carpenter to fully research the matters to ensure they were following state law and state ethics? Moreover, did they turn to their full-time paid county attorney, Chuck Watson, for advice on the legality of what they were doing? Besides, Watson is the same attorney who apparently had opinion after opinion from the state attorney general's office clearly saying council members' reimbursement for conducting business should be based on actual expenses supported by receipts, not through some arbitrary fixed rate. Someone knew the secreted pay hike was flat out wrong.
And did any one of them even consider suggesting someone contact the very body that eventually investigated them and issued this week's damning report on their lack of ethics and likely violation of state law? The chairman, Robbie Templeton, in the leadership role he was in for some years up to that point, should have demanded as much, even though he did not participate in the indistrict expense fund scheme himself.
If they were but unwitting participants in these self-serving schemes, then they at least remain culpable and carry a responsibility to ensure all was within the law. They failed to do that. They failed the public's trust. They failed as stewards of the taxpayers' money.
And can they really be labeled as unwitting participants when, again we note, the two controversial funds that mysteriously appeared also mysteriously disappeared only when the light began to shine on their existence?
When interviewed for Thursday's story about the commission's investigation and report, Bryant and Templeton made some very interesting, perhaps telling statements.
Bryant said, "In hindsight, we would certainly have handled it differently." Indeed, sir. Indeed. Most people tend to issue such a backward apology when caught in the wrong.
And Templeton? "Obviously, what we know now is that it should have been done a different way. ... Monday morning quarterbacks have never lost a game."
The football analogy is good, and so we offer another one: Many a game has had a much different outcome when a referee's call has been reversed thanks to instant replay.
Well, sir, the Ethics Commission has reviewed this play, the public has reviewed this play, we have reviewed this play. The public lost this one game as members of Council scored a touchdown while stepping out of bounds on the public trust field of play.
You want to play Monday morning quarterback? Fine. Then reverse the outcome. Let Greenwood County taxpayers take the win they deserve. Help restore some faith and confidence in Greenwood County Council as a whole. Forfeit the game. Resign and let's get some new players on the team.