Me . . . Golden parachutes
Me . . .Playdoh
Seems to Me . . . Be
1 - Seems to Me . . .
- Seems to Me . . .
Dec 14 -
Seems to Me . . .
By Stan Welch
In the time that I have been living in Anderson County, I have noticed a tendency among its leaders and some of its people to measure themselves and their achievements against those of Greenville County.
For example, I have often heard Greenville Countys budgets and tax figures used to compare to Anderson Countys. It is clear that the two Counties are in competition with one another for jobs and economic development. It is equally clear that Greenville tends to lead that competition in many ways.
I have discovered one example of Andersons clear lead over her neighbor, however. I read, or at least scan, two or three newspapers a day. I do so for several reasons. One is that I am a truly curious person, and I like to keep track of whats going on in the world. Another reason is that despite some reports, I dont think Im the only good newspaper reporter in the world, or even the Upstate area. I happen to appreciate the craft of good journalism, and those who pursue it. So I like to see what other reporters are doing.
It was during just such an expedition that I came across this stunning instance in which Anderson County is so clearly ahead of her friendly rival. It was right there on the front page of the January 27 edition of The Greenville News, the dominant daily newspaper of the Upstate.
The story, by staff writer Paul Alongi, went like this. Tom Inman, a member of the Board of Directors for the Phoenix Center asked for a briefing on several legal settlements and the costs incurred by the Center during those suits. The Phoenix Center provides substance abuse counseling to both adolescents and adults. It receives its funding largely from the federal and state governments, while local taxpayers provide two per cent. Clients of the center and grant monies provide the balance. Such a funding scheme clearly makes the center and its board subject to the Freedom of Information Act. His motion to require the agencys attorney to provide such a briefing failed for a lack of a second. Sound familiar?
But wait! as they say on the late night commercials. Theres more! Inman was then censured by the Board for being disruptive. Disruptive, they say. How dare he? And what was the basis for this heinous charge against Inman? According to the resolution, which someone on the board had just happened to have prepared, he acted without board authority, and had made unsubstantiated accusations against Phoenix Center executive director Kat Rice.
(Allow me to digress a moment. I dont know the woman, but anyone named after an animal and a cereal would make me suspicious too. But back to the story.)
Inman had also placed an undue burden on the centers staff by demanding reports and other information. Now, I dont know about you folks, but Im just a little tired of these people who get appointed to some board, or elected to some city or county council and immediately begin snooping around in that organizations business. I mean, who do these people think they are?
Still, the fact remains that Greenville County lags behind Anderson in this area. The Anderson County Council approved a resolution in 2001 which declared Councilwoman Cindy Wilson, one of its own members, an adversary of the County, beating Greenville by five years. Take that, Greenville. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. When it comes to childish attempts to intimidate and control public officials and board members, you folks cant carry Anderson Countys water.
In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that those folks used the Anderson County Council blueprint. I mean, lets look at it more closely. The issue was over the boards legal strategy and the costs of that strategy. Wilson was officially chastised over essentially the same issue.
Inman, who is a retired editor from the Greenville News (what were those people thinking putting this guy on the Board?), is a vocal critic of both the center and its director; Wilsons well known for her problems with county administrator Preston and his performance. Inman saw his request for a briefing die for a lack of a second to his motion; Wilson has seen more motions die from a lack of a second than the Russians lost cosmonauts in the space race.
Conveniently, someone had prepared a two page resolution just in case the board wanted to censure Inman. The resolution naming Wilson an adversary was similarly, and most likely, illegally available as well. I say most likely illegally because either the administrator had it prepared on his own authority, or an illegally polled or convened Council ordered him to prepare it.
Intimidation is what both these events were about, and intimidation has no place at any level of government in a supposedly free country. Seems to me it hasnt worked on Wilson; it seems unlikely to work on Inman. But, hey, isnt it nice to be first sometime?
By Stan Welch
There sure is a lot going on in our little corner of the county, isnt there? Williamstons financial woes are the talk of the upstate, judging by the people who approached me at the County Delegation meeting Monday. State Representatives and Senators were all asking how things were going and what was going to happen. All wished the Town well in their efforts to right the boat.
I told them things were tough and probably going to get tougher. It is my personal opinion that both the Mayor and the Council are responsible for the situation, and responsible for doing what needs to be done to get squared away; no matter how much it hurts or how long it takes.
Clearly, for too long, the members of the Town Council have shirked their duties: they have left the running of the town to a mayor who clearly has not demonstrated the kind of fiscal responsibility expected by the voting public. Given the prior fiscal history of the Town and its previous administration, one would have anticipated an actively involved, if not downright snoopy, Town Council. Instead, they have allowed an eloquent and loquacious chief administrator to beguile them, allowing him leeway to make decisions that are now coming home to roost.
Mayor Clardy has said more than once that he hasnt done anything that the Council didnt let him do. That is true: it is also a shame. That the Mayor used the Councils failure to perform its duties as an excuse for his own irresponsible behavior, and the Councils failure to exercise its minimal fiduciary responsibility to the Town is a poor combination of factors. Both the Mayor and the Council should be called to account for the truth of that statement. It speaks of a shunning of responsibility by both which, frankly, is the only sensible explanation for the Town being in the fix its in.
Former Mayor Marion Middleton has spoken out recently about his role in the Towns finances during his administration; that role and its results have been well covered in the media and in the corner coffee shop. But whatever Marion Middleton did to the Town of Williamston, one fact is indisputable. He quit doing it five years ago.
Whether you are one of his supporters or harshest critics, it doesnt really matter. Whatever he did, he quit doing it five years ago. Mayor Clardy, who ran against that previous administration and its record, must realize that he can no longer use Middleton as an excuse for the Towns continuing troubles. If you cant clean up a mess in five years, its only fair for people to wonder if you know how to use a mop at all. Mayor, its time to grab a mop and get to work.
But folks, lets not kid ourselves. The people of Williamston, and for that matter, the surrounding towns and area, have to take a good look at themselves, too. Williamston has not raised taxes in ten years. Tell me one thing, one item, one service, that still costs what it did in 1995. Is gas still the same price, or health insurance, or a carton of milk or a box of cereal? Does PVC pipe cost the same, or office supplies, or any of the hundreds of things used in running a town?
Can anyone whos really in touch with the real world expect a town to run on the same revenues it generated ten years ago? The growth rate in Williamston is certainly inadequate to generate sufficient revenues based on a decade old tax rate. Folks simply cannot reasonably expect such complete insistence on the lowest possible tax rate to work.
What they can, and should, expect is that their tax money be spent as wisely and carefully as possible. They have every right to demand responsible stewardship from their elected officials. But they must also understand that, whether their conservative political hearts like it or not, the only way for a small town to meet its needs these days is to leverage money from the state and federal governments, in the form of grants and loans. The conditions that come with such funds are an annoying but necessary part of life.
Its plain to see that tax dollars can do far more when collectively applied than the same amount could ever accomplish when returned on an individual basis to each taxpayer. In other words, a thousand taxpayers who each receive a fifty dollar rollback, rebate, refund, whatever you call it, can do very little with that money. They certainly cant fix the sidewalk in front of their house or patch the potholes in the street. But $50,000 used by the Town for the general benefit can do those things. It is simply economy of force.
Financial analysts at the Appalachian Council of Government have seen these problems before. They know what has to be done, and how to do it. They can help the Town out from under their troubles, but it will be unpleasant and tough; and it will take some time. But it will be easier and faster if the process is freed from maintaining unrealistic expectations, finger pointing, and refusing to see the reality of the situation.
Seems to me, theres enough work to be done without doing all that extra stuff, too.
As the holidays approach, the Anderson County government, like all governments everywhere, is preparing to gear down between now and the end of the year. Its not quite hibernation, but its close.
One sign of this annual slow down is the fact that County Council has cancelled their second meeting for the month of December, so that they can concentrate on attending holiday parties and shaking hands and politicking.
As a result of this perfectly normal occurrence, current Chairperson Gracie Floyd has just one more Council meeting over which to preside. Floyd seems to have enjoyed the experience in some ways; she also seems less than unhappy about seeing her term end. Her mixed feelings are understandable.
Her term began with controversy, as three Republican Council members voted for the Democrats candidacy. Immediately, the Republican-laden Anderson County Taxpayers Association and the Republican Party leadership raised a hue and cry, accusing the defectors of treason most foul.
The controversy continued as the budget process jumped the tracks. Floyd expressed her dismay that she wasnt able to deliver the budget as presented by County Administrator Joey Preston in a timely manner. Preston wasnt especially pleased either.
Floyds performance in the actual conducting of the meetings was spotty, with a number of Parliamentary foibles taking place. Perhaps the most blatant examples came when either Preston or county attorney Tom Martin had to take noticeable roles in steering events in certain directions; as they did during the budget process, and more recently during efforts to include certain properties in the multi-county industrial park.
Still, for each person vacating the Chair, there is another intent on occupying it. All signs point to that person being Councilman Larry Greer in 2006, with first term Councilman Bill McAbee serving as vice chair. Ms. Floyd all but announced that combination during her remarks at the end of the last Council meeting. The fact that such a decision is already made should come as no surprise since Floyd was elected in a single vote lasting about three minutes at the first Council meeting of this year.
Greer, a longtime veteran of the Council, and a self-described conservative, often displays his Parliamentary acumen, and should chair the meetings effectively. McAbee has shown an ability to process the information which comes before the Council, and should serve adequately as the vice chair.
There are some issues that the Council needs to address and address early on. One step the Council should take is to make a commitment to honor the terms of the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act in its entirety. This is important for several reasons.
First and foremost, it is the law in South Carolina, a law that each council member swore to uphold.
Secondly, it is vital that the public has a sense of confidence that their business is being conducted honestly and openly; otherwise cynicism flourishes and government becomes less and less effective.
Thirdly, the County has spent thousands upon thousands of dollars in fighting one of its own members efforts to obtain routine financial records of the county; records which two different State Attorneys General have ruled should be released. For a Council that boasts about its fiscal responsibility, such an expenditure is indefensible.
Even more so is the Councils apparently willful refusal to execute a simple majority vote instructing the county administrator to provide the information requested.
The incoming leadership should commit to a swift resolution to this problem. Claims that the case has progressed through the courts and should be allowed to continue are nothing more than an argument to throw good money after bad. There is no burning legal issue at stake here. That issue has been settled by the opinions issued by the Attorneys General. What is at stake here is the publics belief that their representatives follow the laws of the state.
Another commitment that the incoming leadership should make is to insist on a timely and thorough budget process. The normal practice of presenting budget documents at the eleventh hour and expecting rubber stamp approval suffered a setback in 2005; it should be dealt a death blow in 2006 by Chairman Greer leading the way in demanding that budget documents be provided in time for a thorough review and debate.
In that way, his term in the Chair can begin much more smoothly than the last Chairpersons did.
Those who attended Tuesday nights town forum could hardly fail to leave that meeting with a sobering awareness of just how grave the Towns financial situation is. Bob Daniels, a financial analyst with considerable experience in the fiscal messes small towns can get themselves into, calls the situation a severe crisis and says that the Town faces being unable to make payroll as soon as late February, unless drastic measures are taken.
Those measures include serious cuts in spending, as well as the implementation of new fees and the increase of some existing fees. That these measures are being considered only now is proof, however, that they are too little, too late. The new fees, while needed, cannot change the fact that as many as twenty men and women could be released to seek other jobs in a less than friendly job market. As many as twenty families could lose at least a portion, and possibly all, of their income.
These cuts are not just numbers moved about on a spread sheet; they are symbolic of lives being altered, seldom for the better. Parents will have less to spend on their children. Car payments and grocery bills and mortgages and rent will tougher to come up with. The fallout is the more unpleasant because so many of those affected are our neighbors, and citizens of the Town that has failed them.
There will be fewer police officers, fewer maintenance workers, fewer water and sewer department employees on the job. Administrative positions must be cut also. Lives will be altered, and so will the services provided to its citizens by the Town.
How this came to pass is not a question of blame; it is a matter of responsibility, and who should accept it. The answer seems obvious and unavoidable. The current administration, including both the Mayor and the Council, has failed glaringly to meet their obligations of office. The time for looking to the past to explain the present and try to influence the future is gone.
It is time for this administration, both Mayor and Council, to step forward and accept complete responsibility. Smooth talk and apathy have not and cannot save the day. Sacrifice is required, and if it is to be imposed on twenty employees of the Town, it should be accepted by those who impose it because of their past failings.
Councilman Greg Cole seems aware of the impact on those families. He said during the forum that among other suggestions, he will propose that the Mayor and Council cut back on their salaries until the Town is back on its feet. It is a timely and appropriate suggestion except that it doesnt go far enough.
If twenty hard working employees of the Town must surrender their paychecks, why should the responsible parties do any less? The combined salaries of the Mayor and Council exceed $50,000 a year, before calculating FICA, insurance coverage and other benefits. The figure creeps toward $60,000 when those figures are added in.
Mr. Mayor, Members of Council, will you throw, not just part, but all of your paychecks back into the pot, to help save the Town you all proclaim to love so well?
The Town of Williamston continues to see problems under the leadership of Mayor Phillip Clardy. Now well into his second term, the town continues to be increasingly financially unstable and until the revelations made last week about the towns financial status, there has been little public discussion by the mayor or council on how bad it is or on what needs to be done.
Under Clardy the town has continually borrowed money to make up for deficits in the towns budget. Clardy and his staff have blamed computers and software, rising insurance costs and most of all, the former administration, for the problems.
Yet with new computer software, additional professional advice by two financial consultants and continued warnings in the towns annual audit, financial and internal control problems abound.
In the Towns 2004 audit, which was released in July 2005, the auditing firm of Greene, Finney & Horton,LLP. listed numerous ways the town could improve internal controls for the town and the police department.
Until last week, there has been no public discussion or announcement concerning any of the issues pointed out in the audit. Mayor Clardy and Police Chief David Baker did address the issues in an interview in The Journal which indicated that they have been working on and are making progress in some areas.
However with the latest revelations, it is time for the Mayor, Council and citizens to realize that drastic measures are necessary for the town to survive.
While The Journal is not asking for the mayor to resign, as some citizens have, we believe the following steps should be taken:
1) Admit there is a problem with the towns finances and address it.
2) Come up with a budget that addresses the financial problems, (that is with the necessary cuts in staff and spending) to make it workable and stick to it.
3) Quit blaming the former administration and assume responsibility for the problems the town is facing today and tomorrow.
4) Include the public by holding a community meeting as soon as possible and explain what has happened and what is being done to correct it.
If these things are done, the mayor and council can earn the respect and trust of the citizens of Williamston and put the town on the path it should be on.
Rumors and questions about Mayor Phillip Clardy have swept Williamston, Anderson County, and beyond in recent weeks. While some of these rumors are of a personal nature, and beyond The Journals responsibility to respond, there are other aspects of recent events involving Mayor Clardy that do require this newspaper to report.
Due to his role as Mayor and chief administrative officer of the Town of Williamston, however, Mayor Clardys recent business difficulties are of legitimate interest. A recent court ordered repayment schedule for a loan obtained from a former reserve police officer, coupled with this weeks eviction from a building being leased to house his church, raises valid concerns about his abilities as a financial manager and administrator.
Add to that recent difficulties encountered by The Journal and citizens in obtaining public accounts of the Towns finances, a reluctance by the mayor to discuss them, along with legal and financial shenanigans by Clardys predecessor, and an accurate accounting of the Towns finances seems a most reasonable request.
The Mayors response to these rumors, published in last weeks Journal, did nothing to answer the questions being raised by the general public. As stated, this newspaper seeks only answers which concern the Town and its operations. These answers should be forthcoming in order to allow the rumor mills some brief respite.
Recent efforts by The Journal to obtain an accounting of the use of credit cards issued in the name of the Town of Williamston have lead some to speculate that Mayor Phillip Clardy is suspected by this newspaper of wrongdoing in connection with his use of those credit cards.
Nothing could be further from the truth, for the simple reason that the Town has never established a definition of wrongdoing. At this time, there is no policy in place which defines when and how the credit cards can be used by the Mayor.
While The Journal does in fact feel that the use of the credit cards has been, in a number of instances, frivolous and extravagant, no allegations of criminal intent or activity have ever been made; for the simple reason that, as Mayor Clardy has said himself on occasion, Im only doing what they (council) allow me to do.
In short, if there is no law, there is no crime.
The Mayor, however, hardly escapes the responsibilities of his office quite so easily. More than a year ago, the Town Council voted to authorize the Mayor to establish just such a policy; a policy on use of credit cards and vehicle use. That policy remains unformed and non-existent. The Mayor bears full responsibility for that failure to follow the councils wishes.
Such an apparently willful refusal to provide for fiscal accountability, coupled with the statement cited above, which makes clear the Mayors understanding of his situation regarding the cards use, creates two separate points. One point is that the Mayor is aware that no policy exists; the second point is that it doesnt exist because of inaction by the Mayor, and to some extent, the Council.
As any high school geometry student can affirm, two points is all thats needed to establish a line. In this case, that would be the bottom line; which would indicate that it is time for the Town Council to demand the swift and certain establishment of a policy for the use of the Towns credit cards and vehicle use that will result in accurate and consistent accountability for the use of Town funds.
Given the Towns fiscal circumstances, no other reaction will suffice.
The South Carolina Freedom of Information Act isnt quite on a par with the Bill of Rights or the Magna Carta when it comes to seminal documents of government. On the other hand, the FOIA is nothing to sneeze at, either.
Adopted by the SC General Assembly in 1987, it was intended to define how governmental bodies and agencies, whether elected, appointed or otherwise established, could and should conduct the peoples business. It requires publication of notice of various meetings, in order to allow the public to attend. It establishes what is and isnt public record; the great majority of material is. It sets certain rules for the conduct of government meetings, and it sharply limits the issues that can be discussed in closed session. In short, it states that the publics business should be done in public in all except a few cases. It has been a thorn in the side of either sloppy or lazy government officials ever since it was passed.
As a result, the FOIA is frequently sneezed at by governmental officials, both elected and employed, across the state. From small town mayors and County Councils to General Assembly subcommittees, there is an unfortunate and indefensible predisposition to conduct the peoples business in secret, or at least in shadow.
Anderson County, and in fact the entire Upstate area, is certainly not immune to this policy of delay and deception. The Journal has recently experienced unnecessary delays in obtaining records and receipts for the use of the Town of Williamstons credit cards by town officials, including Mayor Philip Clardy, as related in a story in last weeks issue.
District 7 County Councilwoman Cindy Wilson has been locked in a legal battle with County Administrator Joey Preston for several years in an attempt to obtain routine records of the Countys financial transactions. What began with Preston claiming attorneys privilege for legal vendor expenses became a struggle over routine financial records of the Countys transactions.
Wilsons inability to access such records stems from, but is not justified by, her separate legal battle with the County over a wastewater system that ran through Wilsons district and some of her family land several years ago, before she was elected to Council. A careful review of the FOIA shows no exemption allowing county employees who are mad at an FOIA applicant to deny them information which is clearly available under the law. The Anderson County attorney continues to support denial of the records despite rulings by two different State Attorney Generals to the contrary. County Council continues to duck its responsibilities by refusing to vote on a motion to instruct Preston to release the records, despite county ordinances which make Preston directly responsible for providing regular accounts of the Countys transactions.
In neighboring Greenville County, a Councilman, Tony Trout, had to visit a local magistrate in an attempt to find out what legal recourse he had in seeking routine financial records from that county administrator as well. In that case, just the possibility of legal action led to the release of the information. Of course, Mr. Trout chose to investigate the criminal penalties for ignoring the FOIA, instead of the civil avenues, as Ms. Wilson did in Anderson County. Apparently, the idea of handcuffs is more persuasive than the idea of a long, drawn out legal battle financed by the taxpayers.
The common thread here is the position by elected officials and their employees that efforts to delay or avoid compliance with the FOIA are somehow proper and desirable. The FOIA states that upon receipt of a request for information, the public body in question has 15 days to respond to the request. The loophole here is that at the end of the 15 days, the body isnt required to provide the information; just to express their willingness or refusal to do so. How long it takes them to provide the information itself is open to interpretation.
So far, the Town of Williamston has taken 7 weeks to provide simple copies of receipts of a couple of town credit cards. The County of Anderson has taken years to provide simple accountings of the Countys routine business transactions. Both bodies politic are apparently comfortable in flaunting the spirit, if not the letter, of the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act. Both bodies politic are hopefully sophisticated enough to understand how that looks to a voting public that generally expects straight answers from their elected officials and hired employees, and not elaborate charades designed to avoid compliance with the laws of the state.
To any and all governmental officials who think that the FOIA is insignificant, we say Gesundheit! Election year is coming.
A new form of government, Council-Mayor, may be the answer to Williamstons political problems. Then again, it may not. Some say that council has no power under the present mayor-council form - Not so! Our understanding is that council at present controls the purse strings. Council also is responsible for creating work positions, not the mayor. Hypothetically, council can create or eliminate any position, even the position of police chief. Council can also set salary limits as well as qualifications for these positions.
There is at present a $2,500 spending limit on the town books restricting the mayor to a certain amount of expenditure without consent of council. So much was done in secret in the past administration that we did not know what that limit was until a new mayor took office in 2001. However, Council can re-set that limit as low or as high as they wish. Any unauthorized expenditure above whatever they set would not be paid.
If council sees fit not to authorize a credit card for the mayor, then so state by ordinance. If a credit card is allowed, set guidelines and restrictions. If council sees fit to authorize use of a town vehicle by the mayor, or any other employee, then enact an ordinance or policy setting guidelines and restrictions.
The position of mayor has a certain degree of power which is necessary to have a workable office unfettered by nit-picking or undermining by individuals council members. Council should not be involved in everyday decisions, some of which must at times be made immediately. However, that power delegated to a mayor can be abused.
Both mayor and council should understand that use of power is a two way street. There must be mutual co-operation and trust by both parties. It is time for the betterment of Williamston and its good citizens that town officials come together in a true spirit of what is best for its people. Thats our opinion. What is yours?
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