Cindi Ross Scoppe

You can see why they’d want to keep this debate secret

This photograph was displayed during the live stream of the Richland County Council’s secret meeting last month to discuss county spending policy.
This photograph was displayed during the live stream of the Richland County Council’s secret meeting last month to discuss county spending policy.

WHERE TO begin?

With the fact that the Richland County Council might borrow money to pay for road projects that are supposed to be funded by the transportation penny sales tax — which would mean spending money on interest payments that should be spent on pavement?

Or with the fact that even as penny tax revenue comes in slightly ahead of projections, the county could run out of road money early next year if it doesn’t borrow — which suggests that no one is exercising any discipline about how and when to spend the money?

Or with the fact that county accounts were overdrawn by $35 million, and that it was even possible to overdraw county accounts by $35 million — which indicates that it has sorely inadequate financial controls?

Or should we start with the fact that the council is holding its discussions about government spending policy in secret — under the woefully wanting justification of receiving “legal advice”?

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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Or with the fact that the only county council member who asked if this really needed to be discussed in secret was quieted when the tax-paid county attorney said it did because of that “legal advice” — which indicates that council members either don’t know or don’t care that the state’s open-meetings law merely allows secret discussions with attorneys, and then only under extremely limited circumstances, but does not, under any circumstances, require them?

Any one of those seven items would be reason enough to be disgusted with the County Council.

Or with the fact that council members declined to discuss their the 2 1/2-hour secret meeting in detail afterwards because of what they called a confidentiality requirement — which indicates that they believe they work for their attorneys, and not the other way around? And which indicates — again — that council members either don’t know or don’t care that the state’s open meetings law merely allows some secret discussions with their lawyers but does not, under any circumstances, require them.

Or with the fact that even the watchdog committee that the council created in order to convince voters to approve the tax increase is being kept in the dark about the debate — as it seems to be about pretty much everything?

Any one of those seven items would be reason enough to be disgusted with the County Council.

But all seven ….

Yes, many people believe it’s smart to borrow money for construction projects when interest rates and construction costs are low. And in fact when voters approved a 1-cent transportation sales tax in 2012, they also agreed to let the county borrow money to kick-start the program, since it would take a while to collect enough money to do much of anything. So the county issued bonds in 2013 to create a $50 million cushion.

This isn’t a gray area.

The tax was to be collected either for 22 years or until it generated $1.2 billion. It generated $253.5 million in the first four years and three months — a bit more than you’d expect. That doesn’t include the $50 million cushion, which suggests that if the road work had been scheduled to coincide with revenue collections, there would not be a problem. But there is a problem, and some want to borrow their way out of it. Which you can’t do.

Even those council members who don’t want to squander tax money on interest payments aren’t willing to say there’s no justification for considering borrowing. That if the bills are coming in faster than the money, the adjustment needs to be made on the spending side. Either rein in costs or, at least, delay some projects.

Nor are they willing to say, no, we will not discuss whether to borrow money — that is, how to spend tax money — in secret. Because 1) state law does not even allow such a discussion, much less require it, and 2) even if it were allowed, it would break trust with voters to kick them out when we discuss how to spend their money. Because this is not a gray area. Because there’s nothing in state law to suggest that it’s OK to meet in secret simply to receive “legal advice from bond counsel.”

That is, after all, why we require public meetings to be held in public in the first place.

State law allows governmental bodies to meet secretly with attorneys for four reasons:

1. “Discussion of negotiations incident to proposed contractual arrangements and proposed sale or purchase of property.”

2. “(T)he receipt of legal advice where the legal advice relates to a pending, threatened, or potential claim or other matters covered by the attorney-client privilege.”

3. “(S)ettlement of legal claims.”

4. “(T)he position of the public agency in other adversary situations involving the assertion against the agency of a claim.”

All four are situations where the government could be put at a legal disadvantage in lawsuits or contract negotiations if the discussion were public. None of them is even remotely related to advice about whether to borrow money, or what kind of rates might be available or what the deadline is for borrowing money.

The only reason to keep that sort of talk private is to keep voters from finding out what the council is considering. And of course voters have every right to hear such discussions. That is, after all, why we require public meetings to be held in public in the first place.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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