(0108) Week of Jan. 2, 2008
priority for Cindy Wilson
By Stan Welch
With the New Year here, District Seven Councilwoman Cindy Wilson still ranks fiscal accountability high on her list of goals to pursue. She vows to continue her pursuit of that accountability, both on the County Council rostrum and in the South Carolina Supreme Court.
The recent controversy surrounding efforts by Wilson and Council Chairman Bob Waldrep to review credit card receipts and other financial records (see related story elsewhere in this issue) is just more evidence of the need for such accountability, says Wilson.
We have yet to receive accurate or complete records on those credit cards. The back up documents are not there. Ive asked for the records on all the Countys cards for the last six months. The closest I got was a three month consecutive stretch on one of the cards.
Wilsons long running battle with the county and its administration over access to public records and information is scheduled to draw one step closer to a conclusion on January 23, when the South Carolina Supreme Court will finally hear arguments concerning a writ of mandamus lawsuit she filed almost two years ago, in an effort to bring the issue to a conclusion.
Im glad to see us finally moving toward a resolution, although I dont know how long the Court will take to actually rule. I am not optimistic at this point because the County is represented by a law firm that wields tremendous power in this state.
At stake is the issue of control over access to public information. Wilson sought legal vendor information concerning the Beaverdam Creek sewer project soon after being elected to County Council in 2000. She was denied that information by county administrator Joey Preston, who claimed the information was privileged, and that the ability to release that privilege belongs to the majority of council. That majority has consistently refused to make the information available, and Preston, supported by the courts, has extended that refusal to more routine and mundane records of the Countys finances.
I always conceded that if the Beaverdam files were denied me, I would have to accept that. But we are far beyond Beaverdam now, said Wilson.
Wilson, based on a preliminary review of the credit card accounts, says there may be serious violations of County policy and state law regulating the use and reporting of such transactions.
There are so many questions, such as why Councilman McAbee would charge a $600 fee for an economic development conference to the County credit card when each Council member has a reimbursable account just for such purposes. Its difficult to see how this Council can require accountability when they themselves have used County credit cards without proper back up documentation.
Another matter concerning Wilson is the Sheriffs financial woes. What has the public actually received for that three million dollars in overruns by the Sheriff? And why are there still credit card charges being made against the general fund by the Sheriffs Department? We need to have a more thorough accounting of those issues as well.
The issue of road safety and efficiency in the transportation department is also important, says Wilson. The issue of safety on our roads is ongoing, and it is well past time to deal with that problem. If the public could see clearly how funds are diverted and squandered in this county, instead of being spent where they should be, they would stand up and make their feelings clear.
Wilson also hopes to see the County delegation find more aggressive methods of causing DHEC to work with local authorities concerning the problems caused by the ongoing drought in the state.
There are options that some of our towns and other agencies might be able to use if DHEC were given some different direction. For example, Williamston could at least investigate the use of the Big Creek reservoir as a water source.
Air quality is another point Wilson raises. We are on the cusp of having the EPA playing into economic development decisions in this County. In large part, the problems we face are more administrative than actual. DHEC should be made aware of these things and given some direction in alternative ways of addressing them.
By Stan Welch
As the final days of his chairmanship of the Anderson County Council wind down, District One Councilman Bob Waldrep has other things on his mind. He is waiting to see how county administrator Joey Preston responds to a Freedom of Information request made by Waldrep earlier this month.
That request, dated December 17, began a firestorm of controversy, seeking a significant body of financial information concerning the countys credit cards and their use. The request came just days after Waldrep and district Seven Councilwoman Cindy Wilson, accompanied by a camera crew from WSPA Channel Seven TV, visited the county finance office and requested access to financial records. They were denied access to those records by County financial analyst Gina Humphreys.
The visit was reminiscent of an earlier visit by Ms. Wilson and other members of the media in February of 2006. That visit, during which Wilson opened file cabinets and removed records for review, was dubbed a commando raid by Preston, whose compliance with requests for information continues to fail to satisfy Wilson, and more recently, Waldrep.
Both visits come after years of contention between Wilson and Preston over the routine financial records of the County. Wilson says that she and all the other Council members need that information in order to perform their duties as elected representatives. The fiduciary responsibility which comes with our position cannot be delegated to Mr. Preston or Ms. Humphreys or anyone else. It is ours by law, and we cannot shirk it nor escape it. For an employee of this county to interfere in such a manner with an elected officials performance of his or her duty is completely out of line with what home rule was intended to do.
He never gives the full measure of what is asked for, said Wilson. The records are always incomplete or redacted, or spotty. It seems remarkable that such a reportedly talented administrator has such trouble meeting such simple requests by elected officials.
Chairman Waldrep says that argument is a powerful one. I was elected to represent the people of my district. In order to do that, certain information is essential. For Mr. Preston to refuse to let County employees meet with me in order to answer questions I had about the radio system the County eventually purchased is far beyond any authority he should have over an elected official. For him to assume he can control the flow of public information to public officials is even worse
Waldreps request seeks documentary backup such as receipts, documents and expense reports related to all credit cards issued to Anderson County or to any Anderson County employee which are paid with public funds. . .. He further seeks similar documentation of any and all reimbursement or advance payment made by Anderson County for transportation, lodging, and meals as required by ordinance 55-31 . . .including payments made to County Council members and all persons connected with such expenditure:. The period of time covered in that request ran from July 1,2006 to the date of the request, December 17 of this year.
Waldrep also sought copies of all contracts, options for sale or purchase, closing statements, and HUD closing statements related to all real estate sales and purchases by or to Anderson County beginning with the purchase of the Kroger property in 2006 and extending to the date of this request.
Waldreps request continues, reading, I believe the information regarding current expenditures is vital especially as we begin a new budget cycle. I look forward to working with the new chairperson and the rest of Council to ensure that each and every taxpayer can rest assured that his or her hard earned money is genuinely serving the public good.
By Stan Welch
Efforts to preserve a historic building in Pelzer continue despite the opinion of some that the energy and time could be directed in a more productive direction.
Beth and Will Rostron are seeking information about a building at the corner of Lebby Street and Courtney Street, once known as Buds Café. Beth Rostron, chairperson of the Community of Pelzer Historical Society, hopes to raise funds to preserve the building, which has been slated for demolition.
In a recent e-mail , Rostron reported that the Society had received a sizable donation from Ms. Julianne Heggoy, a descendant of Captain Ellison Adger Smyth, who was the President and Treasurer of the Pelzer Manufacturing Company in the early 1900s. Another anonymous donation has also been received.
The Pelzer Town Council has received a bid of $4000 for the demolition of the building, but consented to allow the Rostrons and their organization some time to explore the possibility of preservation. Town Clerk Skip Watkins said that the Council had agreed to delay any action until its January meeting, but he adds that his personal recommendation is to proceed with demolition.
Its certainly up to the Council to decide, but the building has been vandalized, damaged by fire, and has lead paint on it. If it were preserved, I dont know what use it would have. And I dont know where the money would come from to fix it up to even a usable level. Im dubious that grant money would be available for that particular use. It would cost far more to fix it up than it would to demolish it. I just think the time and energy and resources could be put to a much better use.
Despite the problems facing them, the Rostrons continue to seek any information about the building and its past that is available. Those with information, or interested in the project, can call Will Rostron at 864-947-8817, or e-mail him at email@example.com.
Angel Food Ministries is now taking applications in Williamston for food boxes for January. Deadline for orders is January 7. Pickup date will be January 19.
Angel Food Ministries provides a monthly menu to its host sites. The Angel Food box has $50 to $60 of retail food value but sells for only $30.
Angel Food boxes are designed to feed a family of four for about a week or a single senior citizen for about a month.
There are no income qualifications to purchase food through Angel Food Ministries.
The January menu includes 1.25 lb. of bacon wrapped beef filets, 4 lb. of iindividually frozen chicken leg quarters, 2 lb. of lean hamburger steaks, 1.5 lb. of boneless pork roast, 1.25 lb.of meaty beef short ribs, 20 oz. supreme pizza, 10 oz. deli sliced turkey breast, 3 lb. fresh apples, 35 oz. crinkle cut french fries, 16 oz frozen green beans, 16 oz. onion rings, 14 oz, ketchup, 26 oz. pasta sauce, 16 oz. pasta, 16 oz. pinto beans, 7.5 oz. macaroni and cheese and one dessert item. Cost for the package is $30.
Four different package specials are available with the purchase of the regular box. All orders are cash or EBT and EBT cards will be accepted for payment on Monday, Jan. 7 at the Grace church social hall on Main St.
Orders forms are available at the Grace United Methodist Touch of Grace store on Main St. or can be picked up at Williamston Town Hall or The Journal office.
The Angel Food Ministries program is being offered in Williamston through Grace Methodist Church. For more information call 864-844-4203.
During their first month as a host site for the program, Grace Methodist provided 192 boxes of AFD approved quality food items.
The program is also available in Piedmont through the Piedmont Emergency Relief Center (PERC).
A Strong Communities partner, PERC strives to end childhood neglect and abuse by removing stressors on families. PERC provides emergency food services, food stamp outreach, is an Angel Food Ministries host site, provides information and referral services. PERC also refers clients to agencies to assist with rent and utilities; job training; free and low cost medical care/prescriptions, and much more.
Donations for food can be mailed to PERC at PO Box 424, Piedmont, S.C., 29673 or dropped by the PERC office Tuesday and Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon.
In Piedmont, menus are available from the PERC office, local churches, and local businesses.
For information or to place an order, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or fax contact information to 845-5537.
What appears to be a major road work project in the vicinity of the intersections of Highways 8, 88, and 81 in the Wren area is in fact several separate projects currently underway. Tommy Hendricks, SCDOT project engineer for the jobs, said that the various projects are budgeted at $2 million total, and are expected to be completed by August of 2008. Its difficult to explain exactly what were doing because each project is its own, and not necessarily connected to the others, except in the general sense. One thing we will accomplish is to straighten out the intersection of Highway 8 and Moore Road, which is a main approach to the Wren schools. There is a little jog in that road right now that is just significant enough to make it tricky getting across. Other major work is underway at the four way intersection of Highways 8 and 88,and the triangle formed by those two highways and Highway 81 has been cleared and lane work is underway there as well.
Braden Bratcher, 4, was killed when a truck his father was driving ran off U. S. Hwy. 29 and hit a tree near the Anderson Jockey Lot. James Thomas King, 53, of Williamston, was arrested and will face multiple charges in connection with the incident. According to authorities, King was charged with felony driving under the influence involving a death, simple possession of marijuana, seat belt law violation, having no license plate, violating South Carolina child restraint law and child endangerment. King was driving a 1985 Dodge Ram on Dec. 19 when he ran off the road, officials said. He suffered no life-threatening injuries, however his son, who was not restrained in the truck, was fatally injured, according to officials.
By Stan Welch
On December 17, the Williamston Town Council held their second meeting of the month. Nothing remarkable about that; they hold two meetings a month to do the publics business.
What was remarkable was the fact that two thirds of the three hour meeting was held behind closed doors, away from the public whose business was being conducted. Let me say that again. Two hours of a three hour meeting was conducted behind closed doors. The agenda for this meeting listed four items to be considered. One was second reading for a proposed new fee structure for renting the Town Halls various meeting facilities.
This seemed pretty clear cut, and showed signs of being quickly and efficiently handled. Funny how looks can be deceiving. The fees were established but the Boy and Girl Scouts cant be charged, or a group of old folks in town who just like to gather and chat in one of the rooms. But what if a group doesnt make money from their use of the hall, and whos going to decide who gets charged and why? So by the time the second reading of the ordinance was approved, it was such a mishmash of revisions and second thoughts that it, like most of the Towns ordinances, is virtually useless.
The second agenda item was a work session with the labor attorney on the policy and procedure manual, the police operations manual, and Internet policy. Oh yeah, there was an etc. thrown in in case the above laundry list wasnt enough to allow private discussion of whatever else needed discussing in private. This item was quickly moved to the bottom of the agenda, where an executive session to discuss contractual matters related to the Towns purchase of land for its wastewater treatment plant upgrade was already nestled. Since the item was moved to the bottom of the agenda, Ill also address the issue at the end of this column.
On to the third agenda item, the purchase of two replacement pumps for the wastewater treatment plant. This was handled in a fairly businesslike manner, with only minimal confusion over whether the costs included installation of the pumps or not. The answer was not.
There was then a brief discussion of a recent commitment obtained from the Anderson County Transportation Committee, which appropriates C funds to various projects. In this case, that project was the resurfacing of Academy Street. Mayor pro tem Otis Scott, accompanied by town grant writer Rusty Burns, sought and received a commitment of $143,000 for the project, but were asked to provide a resolution from the Town Council formally requesting the funds. Council, while seemingly biting its collective tongue, approved the resolution without officially scolding Scott for what appears to be a unilateral decision to seek the funds.
While they were at it, Council went ahead and approved a similar resolution asking for funds to fix the godawful mess SCDOT made when they put in a turn lane on Main Street, thereby engulfing the towns sewer lines, and creating the longest roller coaster this side of Six Flags over Georgia. That isnt the official language of the resolution, by the way. But it should be.
Then came the executive session. Mayor Clardy added to that session the supposed work session with the labor attorney on all the various manuals and policies mentioned above. The South Carolina Freedom of Information Act offers considerable guidance, if a law can be called guidance, on this issue of executive sessions. One area which it is clear on is that work sessions cannot be executive sessions. Work sessions are to be conducted in public. In fact, at an announced and scheduled work session, a governing body cannot even vote to go into an executive session.
In recent months, Council, both as a whole and individually, has expressed considerable confusion over just what is and isnt allowed in executive session. At one point, they actually asked David Meade to accompany them into their executive session and tell them what they could and couldnt discuss. David wisely and appropriately declined.
Both myself, and David Meade, who covers most of the Williamston Council meetings these days, have noticed that items not scheduled on the agenda have in fact been brought up and voted on following executive sessions by the Council. That was the case at the December 17 meeting, when a decision was made to make a part time parks employee full time.
Such last minute additions to and alterations of the agenda are sometimes unavoidable. But the purpose of the agenda, and its publication prior to the meeting, is to let the citizens know what is going to be addressed at the meeting, giving them a chance to participate in, or at least observe, issues of concern to them. It should be prepared with forethought and consideration, and not cut and pasted and modified as a convenience.
The justification given by Mayor Clardy for conducting the work session in private was that policies concerning specific employees were being addressed. He said the Town attorney assured the council that such an approach was legal. Whoopdedoo.
Legal or not, it is virtually impossible to justify spending two thirds of a meeting in private session. The SCFOIA allows certain items to be discussed in private. It does not require it, or even encourage it. It simply allows it. It is a privilege too often abused and too easily invoked, and not just by Williamston.
The discussions of the towns proposed land purchase for its wastewater treatment operations have been going on for a year. If an update takes more than ten minutes, something is wrong. If specific personnel issues cant be handled without making the Towns overall policies secret, something is wrong.
Two hour long executive sessions can be a sign of many things. But one thing they are clearly a sign of is lack of organization and preparation. Of the various problems facing Williamston, one of the most important is the terrible state of the Towns ordinances. They are vague and poorly written, where they exist at all. Those added recently by this sitting Council are often so sloppily handled that it is difficult to even determine whether an actual vote was taken or not. Such inexactitude leads to the very kinds of problems which the Town is still struggling to escape. If there is no ordinance, there is no crime, no malfeasance; only poor judgement.
Policies and procedures are important, but it is difficult to understand why a manual which is in itself a matter of public record, needs to be crafted in private. Seems to me the Town of Williamston, given its recent record of contention and discord, would take every possible step to build public trust. Doing every bit of the publics business possible in public would be a good start.