ONCE AGAIN, Richland County Council plans to take its annual retreat on the road — this time to the Wampee Conference Center in Berkeley County.
Please tell us what it is that Richland’s council — or any other governing body that chooses to hold retreats or meetings out of town — can get done in Berkeley County that it can’t get done in its home county.
The only thing we can come up with is that council members believe that, once far enough away that voters who elected them can’t easily attend, they can discuss the public’s business with a fair degree of certainty that constituents won’t be in the room.
That’s unacceptable. So unacceptable that council members should cancel plans to retreat in Berkeley County and find a suitable place in Richland County.
Richland County Council has many local options — from Fort Jackson to Clemson’s Sandhills station to upgraded county parks and adult centers to meeting places downtown or even in neighboring Lexington County.
Council Vice Chairman Greg Pearce said he would have no problem staying in town but that experience has shown council members don’t participate well at home — particularly the ones who have regular jobs. Instead, when the council used to hold its retreats at home, council members were constantly in and out of the meetings and didn’t fully participate, he said. So the decision was made a few years ago to resume meeting out of town. Last year, the council spent two days in Clemson.
While we understand the struggle of trying to get council members to participate fully, the answer isn’t to limit the people’s ability to know what their elected representatives are up to. It’s for council members to do their jobs. Council members serve voluntarily. It’s their job to make time to attend meetings and sessions that the body sets to discuss strategy, set policy and otherwise plan the future of Richland County. If there are members who can only keep their commitment to serve if they get a trip out of town, then perhaps they should step aside and let someone else serve.
By law, all meetings of County Council are open to the public. By holding retreats so far away, the council effectively ignores this law.
As of Wednesday, the council’s agenda is still up in the air. But historically council members haven’t simply discussed strategic planning and policy. They’ve discussed meaningful issues that affect services, quality of life and taxpayers’ wallets. These matters ought to be discussed at home, in front of the taxpayers who pay for whatever projects the council adopts.
Some taxpayers get upset that elected bodies spend money to meet out of town. The cost of the Richland retreat will be $10,596.21, including lodging, meals and the conference center and travel, according to county officials. While it’s imperative that costs remain reasonable, that’s not what we find outrageous about the out-of-town meeting.
What’s outrageous is failing to hold meetings where the public can attend. Essentially, Richland County Council will hold a long meeting based on an agenda yet to be determined, and taxpayers can’t be there. This is counter to open and accountable government and only serves to erode the public’s trust.
Instead of going out of town Jan. 29-30 to do the public’s business, council members should hold their retreat in Richland County and give residents an opportunity to witness their elected officials at work. Whether members of the public choose to attend or not, they should have the option.
We see no reason for the council to shun staying in town. Unless, that is, council members are trying to hide something from the public.