Just days after The Nerve reported on cramped conditions at S.C. Budget and Control Board meetings – circumstances that do a disservice to taxpayers and transparency – an effort began to make the meetings more accessible.
Overcrowding at the meetings, held in a small conference room that forces throngs of attendees to wait in a hallway outside, apparently has been accepted as the status quo for years.
In a July 1 story, The Nerve described the scene at a Budget and Control Board meeting the previous day: dozens of people from state agencies, colleges and universities, the media and other entities scrunched up against each other in standing room only, overflowing into the hallway.
Folding chairs ringed the room, but almost all of them were reserved for and occupied by government staffers.
Upon observing the situation, some people arriving at the meeting made comments under their breath like “ridiculous” and “demeaning.”
David Owen, construction and property manager for the S.C. Forestry Commission, was on hand. Owen said the meetings are always overcrowded, making it difficult to know what’s happening.
Curtis Loftis, who is in line to occupy a seat on the board as the apparent state treasurer-elect, also was present. Loftis told The Nerve that in the interest of transparency, he would begin advocating for a more accommodating meeting space on the day he takes office in January.
Loftis already has.
So has current Treasurer Converse Chellis.
S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, a member of the board by virtue of his office, spearheaded the move for greater openness at the meetings. Eckstrom worked with South Carolina Educational Television to have the previous board meeting streamed live on the Internet.
It was a first.
As part of the undertaking, ETV set up broadcast monitors in the hallway and a lobby adjacent to the meeting room.
Through his website, Eckstrom also has championed transparency in government spending at all levels in South Carolina.
The site features a page where the state’s stimulus funding is tracked; a register in which state spending is logged; and a local government hub for counties, municipalities, school districts and special-purpose districts to be included.
The Budget and Control Board’s next scheduled meeting is right around the corner – Aug. 12.
This is not an insignificant issue, as the Budget and Control Board arguably is the most powerful panel in state government.
Consisting of the governor as chairman, the comptroller general, the treasurer and the chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees, the board exercises broad control over state spending.
The Budget and Control Board (BCB) also is an agency, employing about 1,000 people and overseeing a vast array of administrative functions.
The BCB is unique to South Carolina, and perennially criticized by Gov. Mark Sanford and others as an unconstitutional mingling of the executive and legislative branches of government.
Seven days after The Nerve’s story was published, Chellis wrote a letter to the other members of the board suggesting that its next two meetings be held in Greenville and Charleston, rather than Columbia, and that other locations be considered after that.
“If we are truly for greater transparency, more citizen access to government, and greater accountability, let’s bring a portion of government to the people so they can directly witness their government up close and personal,” Chellis said in his letter.
In addition, he wrote, “I would also ask that the meetings be held in a public building with enough room to accommodate a large group of citizens and media. Currently the board meetings are held in a small room that does not allow for a great deal of public access.”
And, seizing upon Eckstrom’s effort, Chellis said he would like to see all BCB meetings available online.
Chellis’ office issued a news release in conjunction with his letter.
The Nerve inquired with each BCB member and Loftis as to their thoughts on the suggestions.
Loftis says he broached the subject with the board’s top two administrative officials just hours after the board’s last meeting. “I asked them to research the issue and see if we could move the meeting to a larger room, perhaps the auditorium in the State House,” Loftis said in an e-mail.
But he said it would be unwise to conduct the meetings outside of Columbia because the Capital City “is centrally located and most of the (board’s) staff and members are here.”
Sanford spokesman Ben Fox said in an e-mail, “We’re obviously supportive of Comptroller General Eckstrom’s continued efforts aimed at greater transparency – from his online check registry to now streaming Budget and Control Board meetings online.
“We also think that Treasurer-elect Loftis and current Treasurer Chellis’ ideas about Budget and Control Board accessibility are worth discussing.”
Eckstrom said by e-mail, “There’s no question there needs to be greater citizen access to these meetings, which is a reason we moved to live-stream them on the Internet.”
The comptroller general said he too supports the idea of moving Budget and Control Board meetings to a bigger room “to allow for a larger on-site crowd, letting citizens see firsthand what the Budget and Control Board does and how it debates and arrives at important issues.”
Like Loftis, however, Eckstrom expressed reservations about taking the meetings on the road. Doing so “might hinder media access rather than help it,” Eckstrom said.
Efforts to reach Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman were unsuccessful. A Finance staff member said Leatherman is on vacation this week.
Two messages left for House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper were unreturned. Cooper was in Charleston attending the annual Southern Legislative Conference meeting, which is slated to conclude tomorrow.
As for the timing of Chellis’ recommendations, was there anything particular to it?
“No, not really,” says his spokesman, Scott Malyerck.
“And we haven’t heard anything back from anybody saying, ‘Yeah, we think it’s a good idea,’” Malyerck says.
The Treasurer’s Office began discussing the issue “way back,” he says.
Malyerck says the office borrowed a page from the New Hampshire Executive Council.
Chellis’ letter says that council has six members, including the state’s governor, with “similar responsibilities as South Carolina’s Budget and Control Board” and “has held their meetings around the state to allow for greater public involvement and access.”
Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or email@example.com.