An S.C. Budget and Control Board meeting Thursday wasn’t as crowded as most of the board’s meetings, but it was still standing room only – and still tolerated despite conditions that undermine transparency and public access.
However, an effort is under way to relocate the board’s meetings to a more accommodating space.
The question is: Will the Budget and Control Board get behind the effort and make it happen, or continue to accept the status quo?
The board meets in the Governor’s Conference Room in the Wade Hampton Building on the State House grounds in Columbia. The room is woefully undersized for the usual number of attendees, and all but a few of about three dozen chairs ringing the chamber are reserved for and occupied by state government staffers when the board confers.
Arguably the most powerful panel in state government, the Budget and Control Board (BCB) consists of the governor, the state treasurer, the state comptroller general and the chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees.
The board wields wide-ranging control over state spending.
The BCB also is an agency, employing about 1,000 people in myriad administrative operations. Those include maintaining state buildings and running the State Energy, Budget and Research and Statistics offices.
Before the Thursday meeting, The Nerve reported in a July 1 article on way cramped quarters at the board’s last gathering, on June 30.
Some people arriving at that meeting – crowded such that attendees stood shoulder to shoulder and overflowed into a hallway outside – derided the situation as “demeaning” and “ridiculous.”
In The Nerve’s report, Treasurer-elect Curtis Loftis called for a larger meeting space “in the interest of transparency.”
In an Aug. 3 follow-up, The Nerve told how current Treasurer Converse Chellis wrote to his four BCB colleagues seven days after the The Nerve’s initial story asking them to consider moving the board’s meetings to a more accessible location.
Chellis spokesman Scott Malyerck said the Treasurer’s Office had not heard back at that point from anyone regarding the proposal.
But Gov. Mark Sanford, through his spokesman, Ben Fox, and Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom told The Nerve that the idea is worth exploring.
Eckstrom sparked the effort for transparency at Budget and Control Board meetings. He asked South Carolina Educational Television to live-stream the June 30 meeting online, and ETV obliged.
It was a first, and it happened again at yesterdays’ BCB meeting.
Loftis said in the follow-up story that the State House auditorium might be a good spot.
Located near the public entrance to the Capitol, the auditorium features 60 theater-style padded seats, room behind them for several TV cameras and, in the front, a stage with a giant video screen in the backdrop.
Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, could not be reached to comment for the second story.
But The Nerve caught up with Leatherman and Cooper at yesterday’s Budget and Control Board meeting.
Leatherman said he had not seen Chellis’ letter. But, the senator said, “I’ll look at that. I want to make it as convenient for the people as we possibly can.”
Cooper indicated he did get the letter. Is Cooper receptive to the idea? Sure, he said, adding, “I think it’s great.”
As The Nerve proceeded to ask Cooper about the matter, he turned his back and started walking away – out of the room, down a hallway and out of the building.
Does Cooper not want to talk to The Nerve?
“Not particularly,” he answered as he exited Wade Hampton. Cooper did not explain why.
In an e-mail after the meeting, Eckstrom said, “The idea of moving the meetings to a bigger room is an idea I wholeheartedly support. It’ll help to make government more transparent. Moving to a bigger room will let more people physically attend the meetings.”
Eckstrom said live-streaming the gatherings “opens the curtains of government and lets the sunlight in. Now folks from every area of the state are able to watch them from the convenience of home or work.
“I’m confident that live-streaming the meetings will be a regular practice. Since decisions made in meetings like this affect everyone, we’ll keep looking for ways to improve transparency and make government officials more accountable to the citizens.”
Perhaps because it’s summertime and a generally less busy season in state government, the Budget and Control Board meeting Thursday was less crowded than is normal.
Still, by the time it started at around 10:30 a.m., almost all of the reserved chairs were filled and about 20 people and a few television camera operators were standing in the room close to each other.
“They’re all reserved – crowded room,” a man said as he entered and saw the chairs occupied.
M. William Youngblood, a shareholder with the McNair Law Firm, commuted from Charleston to attend.
“I guess they cannot be accused of being frivolous with their spending on these facilities,” Youngblood said wryly of the BCB members and their meeting quarters.
He said the board draws large crowds because it has “such an enormous range of statutory responsibility.”
Bill Easterling, an audio/visual technician for ETV, said the room has poor acoustics and other drawbacks that make broadcasting the meetings difficult. “You hear all the background noise,” Easterling said. “It’s hard to hear the person you want to hear.”
For the most part, other media in South Carolina have ignored the issue of the board’s inadequate meeting space, despite the fact that reporters from some of the state’s largest news outlets regularly attend BCB meetings.
Of course, it should be noted that the reserved chairs include a few for the media.
Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.