Editor’s note: This article continues a series of profiles on The Nerve’s Citizen Reporters. See a companion video report to this piece, by Nerve videographer intern Katie Geer, in the embedded clip at the end.
Lexington resident Talbert Black says The Nerve’s Citizen Reporter program is important because it brings about change by shedding light on issues that might otherwise be overlooked.
“Government change is slow,” Black says. But through the Citizen Reporter program, he says “the exposure of tax increases, the exposure of really stupid regulations, has really changed the way our government behaves.”
Grounded in participatory democracy, the Citizen Reporter program seeks to foster transparency and accountability in government by providing a venue for grassroots activists like Black to report on their elected officials and the public employees they oversee, at both the state and local levels.
Ideally, the program will feature a statewide network of Citizen Reporters who collaborate and share information in their efforts.
Citizen Reporters can contribute to The Nerve in a number of ways, including writing traditional news stories, interviewing public officials or filming General Assembly, city council, county council or school board meetings.
Black, a native of Columbia, started working with the Citizen Reporter program “pretty close” to its inception – when The Nerve was launched (in January 2010) – after a member of The Nerve’s parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, introduced him to Ashley Landess, president of the Policy Council.
“I was really excited about what they were doing,” says Black. “I was already doing what they wanted Citizen Reporters to do anyway.”
Black, 42, first delved into politics in the late 1990s. He volunteered for Campaign for Liberty, a group dedicated to promoting individual liberty, constitutional government and grassroots mobilization, according to its website. He is also a staunch advocate for Second Amendment Rights.
Black has assisted The Nerve reporters on several stories, including a piece about how the Legislature’s appropriations committees have tended to ignore a requirement of state law that they hold joint public hearings on the governor’s yearly executive budget.
In terms of the issues that most concern Black, he has immersed himself in an effort to restructure state government by more equally balancing the powers of its three branches: the executive, legislative and judicial.
In the recently legislative session, this was attempted through a bill to abolish the Budget and Control Board and create in its place a Department of Administration in the governor’s cabinet.
But the bill didn’t live up to that goal, Black says.
“The DOA bill was purported to be getting rid of the Budget and Control Board,” says Black, who is well versed on the subject. “When the Policy Council looked into that and provided their analysis of that, it revealed that that was not at all what was happening.”
Of course, the Budget and Control Board still exists. The Board is made up of the governor, the treasurer, the comptroller general and the chairmen of the Senate Finance and the House Ways and Means committees.
“Two members of legislature, three members of executive branch,” observes Black. “You can’t hold any one person accountable or one branch of government for the decisions that they make.”
Elaborating, Black says, “We have things like bonding, which really is an appropriation – which belongs with the legislative branch – and is controlled by the Budget and Control Board. Procurement, which really is an executive function, is controlled by the Budget and Control Board.”
Black insists that these issues should belong to one branch or the other, not a board made up of members from both branches, “so you can have specific accountability.”
While Black admits to not being totally comfortable with the interviewing part of his Citizen Reporter work, he says his dedication to making sure government stays within its bounds, “protecting people, our life, liberty and property,”gives him the ability to step outside of his comfort zone and report on what the government is doing.
“It’s not about giving any more power to any one branch of government,” says Black of his commitment to government reform. “It’s about making all the branches of government equal in power so that then the people actually have the power.”
Black comes from a long line of South Carolinians. “My family has been here for a very long time. Since the mid-1700s,” he says. After graduating from Clemson University, Black became an electrical engineer, and now works as a software engineer. He is married with three children and one grandchild.
Black has also begun working with The Nerve’s recently launched Legislative Delegation Watchdog Project, in which Citizen Reporters identify which delegations hold meetings, whether these meetings are open to the public, and to cover the meetings.
Black says he e-mailed a couple of his delegation members, Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and Rep. Todd Atwater, R-Lexington, and was informed that they held quarterly delegation meetings that are not open for the public to give feedback. Black’s next step is to talk to the delegation chairman, Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, and suggest they hold “open town-hall type meetings, so citizens can get together and have some feedback.”
“We have a pretty active group here in Lexington County, and I think they can make things happen,” says Black.
In one example, Black says there was a recent statewide effort to empower counties with the authority to tell citizens how to take care of their personal property, such as the appearance of their lawns and their homes. Massey was one of the bill’s sponsors, until he held a local town hall meeting and citizens expressed their displeasure about the bill. Massey subsequently removed his name from the legislation.
“If we could do that as a larger group to the entire delegation, I think that would have much more influence over what the delegation does and make things better,” says Black.
In the same vein, Black believes the Citizen Reporter program is another path for improvement, because it sheds light on local stories that large media outlets tend to overlook, leaving it up to the Citizen Reporters, he says.
“Citizen Reporters can really fill that void,” says Black, “making sure that school boards, the city councils and the county councils are covered, and what they’re doing is written about and exposed.”
Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.