Bolton: What elected officials do with our power

Associate EditorJuly 10, 2014 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— IN A RECENT column, I wrote about how broad-based corruption being alleged on multiple levels of government in our state was shattering public trust.

Just what is it that we place in trust with elected officials? For sure we expect them to maintain high ethical standards, meet the statutory requirements of their offices and ensure the government carries out its duties under the law.

But the chief thing we place in their hands is power: Elected officials are entrusted with the power to control the direction of government or to take action that affects our lives, for better or worse. We bestow upon them authority that elevates them in stature and amplifies their words — and their influence. But ultimately, that’s our power — the people’s power — not theirs.

While many respect that power entrusted to them, there seems to be a growing list of officials who behave as if that power belongs to them. Worse, some seem to think that power is of their own making and that they therefore have a right to benefit from it.

Unfortunately, our penchant for heaping celebrity status, honorary titles and accolades upon elected officials doesn’t help.

Certainly, we should be grateful for their willingness to serve; it’s not easy to expose yourself to public scrutiny and the rigors of a political campaign these days. But while it’s appropriate and right to honor those who we choose to lead our government, we can quickly lose perspective if we’re not careful.

No matter how beloved, they’re not saviors, deities or rock stars. They’re servants who asked to represent the people.

Whether those who serve in public office use their position for good or ill, it’s not all about them, but about how they use the power entrusted to them for the public good.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who is being investigated for possible ethical and criminal violations in regard to how he’s managed his campaign funds, is routinely referred to as one of the most powerful men in the state.

But that’s not his power: It’s the people’s power.

And to whatever degree he has used it for good, he is now using a good bit of that power to fight charges that he took advantage of that power by misusing campaign funds gained, in part, because of that power.

Sen. Hugh Leatherman, already a member of the Budget and Control Board and the State Infrastructure Bank board as well as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, recently was chosen as leader of the Senate. You might say that, at least in South Carolina, Mr. Leatherman has approached super-power status.

People are wondering how he will flex this added muscle. He would do well as a public servant to wield it responsibly and in the best interest of South Carolina. After all, it’s not his power; it belongs to the people.

For sure, many who rise in power politically do so because of their smart, hard work on behalf of citizens as well as their ability to lead, formulate ideas and build alliances. Some rise in power due to longevity in office.

But their ability to climb to whatever heights they reach is underwritten by the power invested in them by voters. And their possessing that power doesn’t come without benefits.

The power and status some elected officials receive afford them various kinds of perks, great and small. They get the best seats and special recognition in churches, community gatherings and even some sporting events. They get their names on roads and bridges and interchanges, even buildings — an honor often bestowed on them by fellow elected officials.

Sometimes serving gives them a leg up on business opportunities, public and private. They get to meet people they wouldn’t otherwise meet. For some, campaign coffers get deeper, careers crank into high gear and earning potential escalates.

No doubt, some work hard at full-time jobs to improve their lives and those of their families. But I think we can agree that serving in public office gives officials a platform from which they can benefit, sometimes rather handsomely.

Let me stress that there are many well-meaning elected officials who serve admirably. Many sacrifice time away from their families and even their livelihoods in hopes their work will improve people’s lives. And they often do it for little or no pay.

That said, all receive some level of power with which to do the work of the people. And power entrusted in the wrong hands — whether on the school board or a small town council or state or federal government — can be disruptive, counterproductive and downright dangerous.

Have you paid attention to the mess being made in Chapin lately? It began when Mayor Skip Wilson entered office with the apparent goal of exerting his will on the town no matter what. He might be winning the legal battle over how much control he has over the town, but he’s ripping the fabric of the town apart in the process.

That’s the thing about power: People have to decide whether to use it for good or for bad. Just as a president can expand health care access, he can also take us to war. Just as a governor can help increase education funding, she can kill Medicaid expansion. Just as city council members can protect communities from sex shops, they can ram through an unnecessary, costly baseball park.

And then there are those who go beyond good and bad decision-making and enter the world of self-dealing and corruption.

While South Carolina’s worst example remains Operation Lost Trust, in which a tenth of the Legislature was indicted on federal vote-selling charges, the web of corruption alleged on various levels of government these days is troubling. Eight S.C. sheriffs have run into legal problems in the past four years, with the most recent case involving the indictment of Lexington County’s James Metts. Former South Congaree police chief Jason Amodio and former Lexington Town councilman Danny Frazier also were indicted along with Mr. Metts.

Last week, former S.C. State University board chairman Jonathan Pinson was convicted on 29 felony counts of public corruption; several other former S.C. State officials already had pleaded guilty in connection with the Pinson case.

It’s great that nonprofit watchdog groups look over politicians’ shoulders and critical for prosecutors to aggressively pursue those entangled in public corruption. But voters must do their part in monitoring how elected — and appointed — officials use the power entrusted to them, and hold them responsible. Voters do that by attending meetings and calling their representatives and, above all, going to the polls.

There’s nothing worse than giving people power and then not holding them accountable for how they use it. And, believe me, politicians are going to use that power: for better or worse.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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