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.
Swansea resident Doris Simmons likes The Nerve’s Citizen Reporter program because she says it allows her to reach out to the public and let folks now know what’s going on in local politics.
Simmons says Citizen Reporters can have a direct impact on readers because the program “lets people know they are as important as anyone, and they can make a difference if they do something.”
Designed to advance government transparency and accountability from the bottom up, the Citizen Reporter program is built around grassroots activists like Simmons engaging with both the public and their elected representatives, and then reporting on those interactions.
Depending on what their activities involve, Citizen Reporters, or CRs, contribute to The Nerve in various ways, such as getting video of public meetings, writing news stories, and submitting S.C. Freedom of Information Act requests.
Through the Citizen Reporter program, The Nerve aims to develop a collaborative, statewide network of community based watchdogs who monitor and report on government.
“Someone from Columbia would not have any need or desire to know what’s going on in Swansea, perhaps,” says Simmons. “But I could see things going on here that I could bring to the public eye not only on a local level, but also on a state level.”
The 61-year-old tax preparer was born in Charlotte, N. C., but has lived in Swansea for almost 30 years. She is a graduate of King’s College in North Carolina, and expects to graduate from the University of Phoenix in December with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Simmons also runs her own business, Swansea Tax Service.
Before Simmons got involved in the Citizen Reporter program, she joined the National Association of Tax Professionals, an organization that includes accountants, tax preparers, financial planners and attorneys. “I’ve prepared and mailed out close to 3,000 (association) newsletters to all members and nonmembers of the state on a biannual basis,” Simmons says.
It was her participation in South Carolina’s chapter of the National Association of Tax Professionals, which required her to hone her writing skills, that Simmons says prepared her for working with the Citizen Reporter program.
When she attended a CR recruitment meeting organized by The Nerve’s parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, Simmons says she believed she had something to offer thanks to her work on newsletters for the tax professionals group.
“This is something I could do,” she recalls thinking, adding with a little self-deprecating humor, “As much as I run my mouth and as much as I talk, I could easily write an article for The Nerve.”
In addition to her writing skills, Simmons nursed a passion for government transparency and civic justice.
“I believe that our government has gotten out of hand,” she says. “They have become too comfortable with the way they do things and the way they operate. They’ll say one thing and they’ll do something else.”
On a positive note, Simmons lauds Aiken County for embracing transparency, saying she was pleased by “all the information that was being put out there (by the county) for everyone to see.”
Last year, Aiken County received a “Sunny Award” from Sunshine Review for snagging a top website transparency score from the organization. Sunshine Review is a national nonprofit that evaluates the websites of cities, counties, states and school districts for transparency.
But Simmons says it’s a different story when it comes to Swansea.
“We cannot get that done here,” she says of transparency. “There are so many towns that are afraid to put anything out there for fear they’re going to get caught doing something, which makes me wonder, are they going to get caught? It seems like they’re hiding information because they don’t want to be transparent.
“People need to know where their money is being spent, how it’s being spent, what it’s being spent for (and) how everything is being handled,” Simmons says. “This is a democracy; we need to know what’s going on.”
Working with the Citizen Reporter program, she says, has given her an opportunity not only to communicate her beliefs, but also to put them into action.
Simmons has assisted fellow Citizen Reporter Alberta Wasden in a crusade to get answers about Swansea’s finances after town officials said the duo had to pay $10,000 for basic information like meeting details and town ordinances. Simmons also filed a separate FOIA request in her own investigation concerning how town funds were being used.
Simmons says public discourse in general lacks input from people outside of government.
“It’s not so much that they don’t care,” she says, “I think it’s more the fact that they don’t know how to find out about what’s going on except for what people tell them. Who do we know that’s telling the truth all the time? We don’t.”
Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or email@example.com.