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.
Wagener resident Alberta Wasden says The Nerve’s Citizen Reporter program is essential because “it holds the spotlight onto the people making the decisions” – and holds those individuals accountable.
“Government should be transparent,” says Wasden. “If you do things behind closed doors, the public doesn’t know how decisions are made.”
This is the purpose of The Nerve’s Citizen Reporter program: to advance government accountability and transparency, and expose political misconduct through the collaborative effort of grassroots activists across the state.
Citizen Reporters can contribute to The Nerve in numerous ways, including writing traditional news stories, filing S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, filming meetings, and by participating in The Nerve’s Legislative Delegation Watchdog Project, which engages activists directly with their state lawmakers.
Born in Norway, S. C., the 48-year-old Wasden, an accountant by trade, traces her interest in politics back to when she was a 16-year-old Young Republican, passing out leaflets door-to-door.
Wasden is a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and now teaches as an adjunct professor at ITT Technical Institute and the University of Phoenix. The married mother of two and grandmother of three also runs her own consulting businesses located in Wagener, Aiken and Swansea.
It was her work in Swansea that led to Wasden’s involvement in the Citizen Reporter program. At the request of fellow Citizen Reporter Doris Simmons, Wasden joined a small-business economic development group affiliated with the Town of Swansea.
When the group considered seeking grants to support its efforts, Wasden says, she approached the town to ask for financial statements and was refused. She subsequently placed an FOIA request with the town, only to be slapped with a nearly $10,000 bill for public information such as meeting minutes and town ordinances.
“I feel like citizens have a right to know what’s going on with their tax money and how the government makes decisions to spend their tax money,” she says.
In fact, Wasden goes a step farther in saying an informed community is vital to a well-run government. And her investment in the Citizen Reporter program has only deepened upon seeing the impact of her efforts to advocate for good government.
“The more outspoken I became, the more people started coming to me from other towns,” she says, adding that the inquiries involved requests for her to look at their respective municipalities’ fiscal condition.
What’s more, Wasden has often been quoted in articles about Swansea’s well-reported shaky financial state.
The town is in danger of going broke, says Wasden. The average resident owes many thousands of dollars, she continues, “thanks to mismanagement of town funds.”
“Swansea has the worst accounting system I’ve ever seen. It’s not transparent. Everyday people can’t understand it. I know because City Council members can’t even understand it,” she says.
Asked to respond to Wasden’s comments, Swansea Mayor Ray Spires said in an email that he was unable to comment because of “pending litigation.”
Wasden says she has faith that the Citizen Reporter program is helping to promote the kind of good government she supports. “I feel like it (the Citizen Reporter program) has exposed more mismanagement, backroom deals and the public has become aware,” she says.
“Things that would’ve never been made known, the Citizen Reporter program brought that out,” says Wasden.
She says she is driven to continue working with the program, specifically through the Legislative Delegation Watchdog Project, because it is designed to be a vehicle for positive change.
“A Citizen Reporter is a change-instigator,” she says. “They find things that sometimes either the elected officials aren’t aware of or the citizens aren’t aware of. And they poke and prod and keep on until there is such an outcry that it is addressed by our elected officials.
“And that’s important. That’s really important.”
Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.