Warren Bolton

Bolton: Richland County’s transportation advisory committee must keep watching

. tdominick@thestate.com

HAS RICHLAND County Council already crippled the watchdog group that was supposed to serve as a check on the way the council spends hundreds of millions of dollars to improve roads and other transportation projects?

While I hope not, that could be the result of a recent ultimatum council members made to the Transportation Penny Advisory Committee.

Since its inception in 2013, members of the group have complained that they haven’t had the resources, access to information, independence or clear understanding of their authority to serve as a true watchdog panel. Things came to a head when the council rejected Councilman Norman Jackson’s reasonable proposal to place the advisory committee on par with the county Planning Commission, which reviews planning and land-use issues and makes recommendations to the council.

Council members, some of whom at times have been perturbed by the suggestion that the committee should closely monitor their actions, instead voted to send a copy of the existing duties and responsibilities to panel members, along with an ultimatum: Take it or leave it.

Transportation advisory committee Chairman Hayes Mizell told me Wednesday that he believes every member has agreed to continue to serve.

That’s a noble gesture on their part, given that the council’s actions make it clear that the committee won’t get any greater role — or clarity — than it had before. Let’s hope that doesn’t put a damper on committee members’ zeal but instead provokes them to be even more vigilant and vocal in their critique of how the council is managing the people’s money and the many projects that are to come.

Frankly, I’m surprised the council is so open and bold in its refusal to empower the advisory committee to the degree that was promised during the campaign for passage of the sales tax. It’s clear today that was only a pitch to get people to vote for the levy.

Councilman Jackson agrees that the council’s actions are contrary to what voters were promised. “That was supposed to be a watchdog group. That group was supposed to question everything we do,” he said. “What’s the problem? Why wouldn’t we want that?”

As it stands, the group “is like a rubber stamp, after the fact,” Mr. Jackson said.

His comments confirm remarks Mr. Mizell made about the advisory panel at the Jan. 26 State of the Penny address. “Some people apply the words ‘watchdog’ and ‘oversight’ to the TPAC’s role, but in light of the limitations under which the TPAC functions, neither word is accurate,” Mr. Mizell said.

“As implementation of the penny has begun to pick up steam, and as the TPAC has gained experience with the program, the TPAC’s role has become less clear. A concern is that the TPAC is often informed about matters of the penny implementation after decisions have been made rather than asked for the committee’s advice and recommendations before decisions are made,” he said.

Mr. Jackson said it’s easy to see why committee members would be frustrated. “Why would people waste their time on that committee?” he asked. “The complaint is that most of the members would not show up because they’re seen as a joke, a rubber stamp.”

Mr. Mizell said that despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, it’s still important for the panel to exist. “I feel like that’s the only mechanism at present for citizens to have a voice,” he said.

He’s right. But are the citizens’ voices heard? For that matter, does the council even care about what citizens think?

It doesn’t appear so. How else do you explain council members’ rejection of requests to clarify the mission of the advisory panel and give it the tools and resources needed to thoroughly monitor progress, review projects and analyze information so it can give public reports and raise warning flags when necessary?

After all, we’re not talking about giving the committee decision-making authority or veto power. County Council has final say over how transportation sales tax revenue for roads and other projects is spent.

This is no small matter. Let’s remember that voters in Richland County had serious concerns about entrusting County Council with a $1.07 billion, 22-year plan to upgrade the public bus system and pay for roads and other projects. The voters had defeated the tax in 2010 in part because many believed the council would use the $769 million that will pay for roads and other projects as a slush fund.

In order to help bolster support for the sales tax in 2012, supporters proposed a watchdog panel to serve as the public’s eyes, ears and mouthpiece. But that’s starting to come across as a con.

That said, even if the council doesn’t yield, the panel should be proactive and willing to challenge changes in projects or priorities when necessary. Its members should sound the alarm when the council makes unwarranted or questionable decisions.

Fortunately, there are signs that the transportation advisory group does intend to be as engaged as possible. Last month, it sent a letter to council Chairman Torrey Rush recommending that the council identify and publicize all priority projects set to be funded via the sales tax that have been or will be funded through another source. The panel suggests that the council determine how much money that would free up and that it set up a process to prioritize new projects that could be funded with that money.

In other words, if the county is going to have money freed up, let’s be sure that it doesn’t get squandered or directed toward some pet project. Put a process in place that ensures those dollars would go toward the highest and best use.

It’s good to have some folks thinking along those lines.

Frankly, given the size and complexity of this program, it would behoove the county to have an independent advisory body looking over the council’s shoulder. There are bound to be mistakes, and we can only pray that nothing worse — some manner of corruption? — occurs. The council already has stumped its toe a time or two. The last thing we need is a monumental mistake that taxpayers will have to pay to fix.

Here’s hoping the advisory panel keeps watching.

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