Editorial: If you get public money, then you’re a public body

  • Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Members of the Georgetown Business Association have come together to promote their various businesses and to help improve their revenue. That’s great, and the Georgetown Times has long supported the GBA and its predecessor, the Downtown Business Association.
In recent years, the group changed its name and expanded its focus from Front Street to include all of the city.
As part of that overall effort, Lynn Mueller and others have sought a wider role for the GBA. That includes marketing the City of Georgetown to visitors, tourists and others. They were awarded $41,000 of city A-Tax funds the first year and $80,000 in the current fiscal year.
They’re asking City Council for $297,000 in the coming fiscal year that begins July 1. That’s $9,000 more than the $288,000 just approved by the County for marketing.

Worthy goal

Making more people aware of the beauty and charm of Georgetown is a commendable goal, and like many we support and encourage that effort.
However, in recent months there have been too many secretive meetings, a failure to disclose information and efforts to keep the public’s business out of the public eye.
While it’s true that the GBA is a membership-based organization, it has eagerly sought out and received public funds for its marketing efforts.
By its very nature, that public funding makes the GBA’s activities public and it makes the GBA a public body.
In its beginning sections, the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) states:

“(a) “Public body” means … any organization, corporation, or agency supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds …”

Later, FOIA states that meetings must be held and be open to the public, proper notice must be given to the media and to any citizen who requests it, votes shall be in public and minutes shall be kept and available for inspection or copying within a reasonable time of the meeting.
In Lynn Mueller’s column [See Page 9A], he complains about the Georgetown Times asking questions of the GBA, its advertising committee and about CASE Solutions and its business.
What we’re after is simply transparency.

Obey the law

Failure to follow the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act is a violation of state law. That should not be done by a group that has received more than $120,000 in taxpayer funds.
Accountability is required when spending public money.
We have a long history of fighting for transparency in any and all public bodies.
Years ago, a local labor union asked for and received $3,000 in county Accommodations Tax funding to promote a Labor Day event. It turned into a political rally for one party’s candidates. As the Times investigated, we learned that indeed this was just the local labor union. It had stated it was a non-profit, charitable group, but had not filed the paperwork to be a charitable organization with the Secretary of State’s Office.
Today, the GBA has already secured around $120,000 in city A-Tax funding for marketing.
That is public money. It is not money that belongs to the GBA.
We’ve been asking questions about how the money is spent, to see budgets and reports, copies of the advertisements and more.
What has been obtained was gathered with resistance, and up until recently multiple requests to make the GBA’s Ad Committee meetings public were flatly refused, as were requests that minutes be kept and shared with the city as well as the public. The Ad Committee does much business via e-mail, and that too has not been shared, despite assurances from the Chairman of the GBA that it would be forthcoming.

Transparency

In his column, Mueller makes many claims. He  shows that he’s good at spinning facts, and uses innuendo.
That includes the suggestion that coverage of the GBA’s agency may have a competitive motivation, when in fact ad agencies are our customers — not competitors — and we expect we may have sacrificed future business by covering the GBA’s agency, not gained it. And the suggestions that an agency based outside the city, who avoids meeting in the city, is somehow more local that the state’s oldest newspaper located on Front Street, is unfortunate.
It’s also ironic as one of Lynn Mueller’s favorite causes is criticizing the Rice Museum for its lack of transparency and use of public funds. His comments on the matter have also been published in these pages.
The Georgetown Times has a long history of shining light on misuse of public funds, failure to follow procedures and proper financial accountability.
The Times, in fact, won a public service award from the South Carolina Press Association for shining light on a $29 million “fund balance” accumulated by the Georgetown County School District a number of years ago. Citizens were disturbed enough over those issues that many board members were voted out of office and the new and remaining board members updated and improved the district’s financial policies.
The Five Rivers Community Development Corporation acquired more than $7 million in state and federal funding to help with housing issues in Georgetown and ended up building just seven houses for individuals. Reporting by the Georgetown Times and others led to a revamping of training for non-profit leaders and a video-based program teaching such worthwhile organizations how not to operate through the negative example of the Five Rivers CDC.
There are numerous other examples of how we have advocated transparency and brought the light of day where it needed to be. The point here is that we are simply trying to get the Georgetown Business Association to comply with the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, the laws governing spending of accommodations tax funding and the City of Georgetown’s own purchasing ordinance.
They have not done so.
Our efforts are aimed squarely at encouraging the members of the GBA to come into compliance with the laws they have an obligation to obey.
We are also urging the Mayor, city administrator and members of Georgetown City Council to provide greater oversight of taxpayer’s dollars.
To rephrase a comment by one member of City Council, we believe that compliance with state law — including the Freedom of Information Act — is broken, and needs fixing.

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