The evolution of public service to self service
Saturday, April 13, 2013 8:07 PM
Greenwood County Council is not unique in having gone off the right and righteous path, as clearly noted by fellow writer Scott J. Bryan's column here today.
In fact, Bryan's term for the rampant ethical and legal violations, "Corruption Corner," is coined because the focus of what he wrote deals with the corner of the world the Index-Journal covers, the Lakelands. Sadly, the corruption, deception, lapses in ethics and violations of laws run deep and wide, as most readers know. It spreads from the grassroots school boards, city and county councils, to the Statehouse and to the White House and U.S. Capitol.
Do all who enter these public offices do so with bad intent from the git-go? The cynic residing in us could be led to say yes; the idealist residing in us would be led to say no, or to at least hope not. We joke about how the term "honest politician" is an oxymoron, but how can we not when so often the headlines indicate while some might truly exist, they must be a rare breed.
MANY WHO ENTER public office probably do so with good and honest intentions and a desire to serve. They, not unlike Clark Kent's Superman alter ego, seem to stand for "truth, justice and the American way." Along the way, sadly, many lose their way. Perhaps it's a slow burn that consumes them through time.
Some members of Greenwood County Council might well be a prime example. They ran for office filled with a desire to serve the county's residents, be good stewards of taxpayers' dollars, help the county grow and prosper.
Through time, perhaps, they begin to view things a bit differently. They, collectively and individually, let their sense of self-worth, of value to the county creep in and undermine the office they hold, and at some point - willingly, deliberately or not - they, not the office, become too important, too powerful.
They perceive themselves as so valuable in word, deed and service to the county and its residents they then begin to believe they should be paid more. But rather than take their case for more pay to the taxpayers, they maneuver in and around laws and ethics they are sworn to uphold and follow. They rationalize they have done well by the taxpayers in keeping down taxes and providing good services, but acknowledge taxpayers might balk at a publicly proposed pay raise to help cover their expenses while serving the county. Surely, there is another way they can be justly paid for the service they render, right? A zig here, a zag there and suddenly they are able to double their salaries and take home a pay check they believe more adequately reimburses them for all the good works they do. No harm done, the public need not know.
LIKEWISE, THE PUBLIC need not know what good they do when spending a collective $242,000 from a pot of taxpayer dollars known as the "council fund." Not unlike the fixed reimbursement (or indistrict expense) fund, the council fund required little to no recordkeeping and certainly no oversight. It only required the council member spend the money - as much as $10,000 a year per member - for the overall benefit of the county. Here again, the power of the office has overtaken the officeholder who has come to believe he or she knows best how and where to dispense the county's treasury and the public be damned.
One member of Council forked out $1,700 to host a volunteer dinner on the premise the benefit to the county would be its encouragement to others to volunteer. Well, perhaps. Generally, however, volunteer dinners fete those who already volunteered. And what of the many, many other volunteers, groups and individuals, throughout the county? Did anyone on Council throw them a dinner?
Another member gave more than $1,600 to a group called "Life Changing Outreach." His explanation? None, really, other than to say all of his expenditures were "for the benefit of the county."
THE PROBLEM WITH SUCH explanations is there really is no way to know if the dollars spent were truly for the county's benefit. One council member's version of what benefits the county might not line up with another's, much less with the public's overall perception of the benefit.
In short, they have come to justify what they do because they have come to view themselves in a whole new light. It happens too often in the public service realm. Too many examples exist in which the idealist begins by saying, "I humbly want to be the public's servant" and winds up saying (or thinking) "Do not question what I do, for I know best."
In Greenwood County Council's case, that body decided it knew best and should spend an extra $148,000 of taxpayer money on itself to cover members' expenses. And it knew best how to spend another $242,000 for the benefit of the county. Or did it?
Whiting is executive editor of the Index-Journal. Contact him at 943-2522; email firstname.lastname@example.org ,or follow him on Twitter at IJEDITOR. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper's opinion.