IT’S THE OBVIOUS first question whenever we hear about a public employee living large on the public dime: How was this allowed to happen? Who allowed this to happen? Why hasn’t this big-spender been fired? And why hasn’t his supervisor been fired?
It’s usually a very reasonable question — even if sometimes the answers are unsatisfying.
As is the case with appointed officials in such super-protected positions that even the people who appoint them have no power to fire them, much less control their spending.
Or elected officials.
The questions about accountability could be asked of any elected official. And, contrary to the assumptions behind some of the angriest inquiries I’ve been getting, not just elected officials in Richland County. They have been asked in years past about other state and local elected officials, generally officials who were perceived as spending too little time in the office. Or throwing lavish parties for their staff.
But of course it is the over-the-top travel and other expenditures of our free-spending solicitor, Dan Johnson, that have raised the questions that are currently clogging my in-box. As in:
▪ “Who is approving his expense reports? It appears that there is a serious lack of controls in the prosecutor’s office.”
▪ “Who is his supervisor — who approves his expense accounts — why no questions about his absences from his job — who approved these journeys, why no questions from his supervisor. How many others are doing the same thing, without any oversight from their supervisor!”
▪ “Who can fire a solicitor? The A.G.?”
Briefly: Who is approving Mr. Johnson’s expense reports is … Mr. Johnson. Not because he’s a Richland County elected official. Because he’s an elected official.
His supervisor is … himself. Because he’s an elected official.
Who can fire him — or any other solicitor — is … the voters. Because he’s an elected official.
When it comes to elected officials, as Pogo would say, we have met the enemy, and he is us.
Maybe there are exceptions I’m not thinking of, but by and large, elected officials do not hold 9-to-5 jobs. They come to work when they see fit; they leave when they see fit. As long as they aren’t violating any law, they have unlimited discretion for how they spend the money in their budgets. This is true whether they hold legislative positions or executive positions. Whether they are in South Carolina or in some other state.
There are ways that elected officials’ spending can be regulated. Richland County, for example, could specify that the $320,000 it provides for Mr. Johnson’s office cannot be spent on, say, travel by the solicitor. Or staff Christmas parties. Or gym memberships. Or any other type of expenditures it wanted to outlaw. But apparently the money Mr Johnson has been spending has been state court fines and fees.
Of course, the Legislature could further limit how those funds are spent — and there are some suggestions that some of the court fees might have had strings that Mr. Johnson cut. But lawmakers probably would have to apply those rules to all solicitors. And just across the river, to take but one example, the solicitor — who unlike Mr Johnson actually prosecutes cases — has traveled out-of-state at government expense to interview witnesses in a notorious murder case. I can’t see why he should have to use his personal funds to pay for that travel, just so Mr. Johnson could be prevented from traveling to the Galapagos Islands at public expense.
Although it might turn out that some of Mr. Johnson’s travel was flat-out illegal, or falls into categories that most of us could agree should be off-limits, questions about elected officials’ spending usually come down to a matter of judgment: One trip to a solicitor’s conference might be fine; a monthly trip, not so much. One modest party for the staff could be tolerable; routine, lavish events a different thing. And that’s not something that’s easy to codify in a law
That’s where we the voters come in. It’s our job to provide that judgment, to let an elected official know he’s getting close to a line and then, if he stumbles across the line, to allow him to find a new line of work.
Of course it’s not so easy to keep an eye on the solicitor, when we’re also supposed to be keeping an eye on the sheriff and the coroner and the clerk of court and the treasurer and our county council member and school board members ... and our legislators and our governor and attorney general and education superintendent and state treasurer and comptroller general and secretary of state and agriculture commissioner. Agriculture commissioner? Really? And I’m sure I’m leaving someone out. There are just so many elected officials. Too many.
It is absolutely reasonable to expect government officials to be held accountable for the way they spend public funds. What is not reasonable is expecting the voters to provide the oversight for such a long list of elected officials.
Yes, we need to elect the governor and attorney general, and our legislators, and probably our solicitors and sheriffs. But having to elect — and supervise — all of those other officials just makes it impossible to keep a close eye on everyone.
It exhausts us. It overwhelms us. And it makes it, oh, so much easier for some of our charges to get away with things they shouldn’t.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.