A majority of Richland County Council said Wednesday it supports the prospect of giving a toothless citizens’ watchdog committee new oversight powers after council’s penny sales tax program has been besieged by criminal investigations and two arrests.
Council Chairman Torrey Rush said he was “definitely open” to the idea of strengthening the Transportation Penny Advisory Committee. But Rush didn’t endorse any specifics. “I’m always looking at how we can get better.”
That sort of statement — made by eight of council’s 11 members — is a significant change in County Council’s stance for the past two years in what it would allow the citizen watchdog committee to do.
Of the council members who responded to questions from The State newspaper Wednesday, only Councilmen Norman Jackson, Bill Malinowski and Seth Rose offered specific plans for toughening oversight of the $1.2 billion program.
A year ago, council shot down Jackson’s proposal to strengthen the citizens’ group by placing its role on par with the county Planning Commission, which has paid staff to help its volunteer members make informed recommendations to County Council.
“We need an oversight committee to keep us straight,” Jackson said Wednesday. “The Planning Commission works. TPAC can work also.
“Now we are in some sort of a mess because they would not listen to what I had to say,” Jackson said, referring to ongoing investigations by the state Department of Revenue and State Law Enforcement Division.
Malinowski said as long ago as 2012, he warned his fellow council members the oversight committee looked as if it would have no power and he wanted it to have more authority.
“In general, there needs to be a good oversight committee, and they should be given any document they ask for about how the money is spent and projects are handled,” Malinowski said.
Councilman Greg Pearce said, “I have no problem with strengthening them if that would be of significant benefit. I don’t want to just say we’re going to do something and it not have any impact.”
Three members — Joyce Dickerson, Julie-Ann Dixon and Kelvin Washington — did not respond to the newspaper’s requests by phone and email for comment.
Washington is facing criminal charges for failing to file tax returns and pay state income taxes from 2012 through 2014. The revenue agency’s probe of the penny tax program led to criminal charges, though the charges are not directly related to money from the program.
The idea of giving the citizens’ panel real powers came before council again on Tuesday. Councilman Rose introduced a proposal to redefine some of the TPAC’s roles. His proposal was promptly sent to a council committee. There was no discussion.
Washington also is a member of council’s five-person transportation committee, which is to evaluate whether to give the citizens’ panel more authority.
Although council created the 15-member TPAC to monitor spending and programs for local transportation needs over the next 22 years, council has repeatedly refused to give the citizens’ panel any real powers to gather and publish information about the penny program.
Instead of creating a transparent penny program that citizens could monitor, council created an interlocking network of numerous private companies that receive and spend millions in public money without any systematic external auditing or responsibility to readily answer public questions about spending.
On Wednesday, TPAC chairman Hayes Mizell said his group needs better tools to do its oversight job. Right now it cannot efficiently request and evaluate information about the penny sales tax programs, he said.
TPAC needs professional help to “do the job I think the public wants,” Mizell said. “To let the public know what’s going on, there simply has to be some staff to do that. ... It doesn’t need to be the biggest auditing firm in town.”
Mizell said the citizens’ group will meet on Jan. 25 and likely will discuss what changes could be made to make TPAC a real citizens’ watchdog.
I had high expectations, but I have been disillusioned by what I felt was their (council’s) responsibility to involve the citizens in how this was going to be carried out.
Keller Barron, Richland County resident
Richland County resident Keller Barron, a retired state employee, said when she voted for the penny sales tax increase in 2012, she believed there would be a serious monitoring process and that the citizens’ watchdog committee “would be staffed adequately.” She said she thought the committee also would have an advisory role to council.
“I had high expectations, but I have been disillusioned by what I felt was their (council’s) responsibility to involve the citizens in how this was going to be carried out,” Barron said.
I have no problem with strengthening them if that would be of significant benefit. ... I don’t want to just say we’re going to do something and it not have any impact.
Greg Pearce, Richland County councilman
TPAC members already can attend and speak at transportation meetings and review any documents they request, said Councilman Jim Manning, a member of council’s transportation committee.
“Anybody that brings anything reasonable and allowable to help people feel like they are strengthened and empowered to ensure accountability and transparency, I am absolutely for it,” Manning said.
Councilman Paul Livingston, chairman of the council transportation committee, said he would be open to considering reform of the TPAC’s role if the group’s members will tell them what they actually want in order to better carry out their job.
As for Rose’s proposal, Mizell said it “provides TPAC with more responsibility and more authority, but it does not address in any way our lack of capacity to execute those responsibilities.”
Mizell said that if he were advising another county on how to set up a citizens’ watchdog goup, he would “give it the financial support to hire an independent auditor ... and that person would be accountable to the citizens’ committee.”
Last week, one of the penny sales tax program’s privately hired lawyers and former Columbia City Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman, pleaded guilty to failure to pay taxes on $204,000 of his income as well as failing to file state tax forms for two years. Newman’s wrong-doing was uncovered during the revenue department’s ongoing investigation.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344. Ellis at (803) 771-8307.