Editorial: Richland County’s sales tax watchdog panel must be active, vigilant

February 6, 2014 

The penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase for roads prevailed in part because Richland County Council said a watchdog group it established would monitor construction and spending. But is the panel really empowered to?

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

— WHILE RICHLAND County Council has final say over how transportation sales tax revenue for roads and other projects is spent, it would be a mistake for the council to ignore the citizens committee it established to be a watchdog over the process.

The Transportation Penny Advisory Committee, the watchdog panel’s official name, was supposed to be more than window dressing. Its job is to monitor progress, give public reports and raise red flags as the council oversees the $769 million construction program approved by voters. The panel was County Council’s way of addressing concerns that derailed the initial effort to raise the tax: Voters and taxpayers lacked confidence in the council’s stewardship and feared it would turn the sales tax revenue into a slush fund.

But the advisory panel is struggling to find its way, and recently, there have been questions about its role. County Council must see to it that the watchdog group is not muted or kept in the dark. The council’s integrity is at stake, because it sold the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax to voters by assuring them that the panel would have meaningful input in the decision-making process.

The most important reason for county officials to ensure that this panel is active and sufficiently supported in its watchdog role is to provide outside review the construction program. Who knows what perils it might rescue the county from?

County Council’s decision this week to rescind its vote to hire an out-of-state engineering firm to manage the mammoth program punctuates the need for monitoring. Last month, the council selected Kentucky-based ICA Engineering from a field of five teams. The second-place finisher, CECS of Columbia, protested the award of the contract, which is projected to be worth $50 million over five years.

We don’t know what to think of the council’s decision to rescind this contract, but there is obviously enough concern about the process for the elected body to vote unanimously to start over.

The Transportation Penny Advisory Committee and others objected when the county hired the out-of-state company, pointing out that the council had promised local groups would get as much of the work as possible. That resulted in a dispute about the panel’s role and whether it even had the right to see certain information related to the selection process. More recently, questions have surfaced about whether the panel will have a say in prioritizing road projects.

Hayes Mizell, chairman of the watchdog panel, said the group is still figuring out how to function and that County Council hasn’t given clear direction. Maybe that’s because even council members aren’t in agreement: Councilman Greg Pearce said he thought the group would have a voice in setting priorities, but Councilman Jim Manning said, “I’ve been very clear … they don’t.”

Mr. Manning also said that advisory committee members “were a little full of themselves” if they thought they had the right to know every detail that went into the decision to hire ICA. But the fact is that state law only allows a small amount of information received by public bodies to be hidden from the public, which means the watchdog group should have access. While there are instances when council members are allowed to receive information the public doesn’t, that should be limited. Indeed, there are precious few instances when those council members are prohibited from sharing information with the public.

While County Council must provide the advisory panel sufficient access and support, ultimately, it is incumbent upon the citizens committee to forge its own way in holding the elected body accountable. Its greatest contribution toward protecting citizens’ interests will be its willingness to ask questions, be persistent in pursuing the answers and shining a light on any flawed or potentially corrupt activities.

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