Editor’s note: This article continues a series of profiles ofThe Nerve’s Citizen Reporters. Accompanying this story is a video produced by Nerve videographer intern Ashley Hinkel. “Citizens are government,” asserts Laurens County Citizen Reporter Katrina Fay. “The ideal government is us.”
With this conviction, Fay drafted the Citizen Boss initiative, a process that encourages citizens to reclaim their power through a website that she created.
“We have the best system in the world,” Fay said in a recent interview. “It’s up to the citizens to make the system better, to make it perform better.”
Fay and other South Carolinians have good reason to be concerned about the present condition of government in the Palmetto State. The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization, and several other groups recently ranked South Carolina as the worst state in the nation in terms of access to public information.
“I’m taking personal responsibility for my state’s grade,” Fay said. “And it starts locally.”
An electrical engineer by trade, Fay originally hails from New York. Her husband was born in Spartanburg; upon his retirement from the U.S. Marines, the pair decided to move to a small farm in Hickory Tavern in Laurens County.
“I’m a city girl,” laughs Fay, who prefaced that she and her husband used to live in a gated community complete with a tennis court and swimming pool. “But I love it now,” she says of the South.
Prior to their arrival in South Carolina, Fay said she quit her job with the federal government, “mainly because I was tired of the bureaucratic, loaded wastefulness.”
She acknowledged that before coming to South Carolina, she was not all that interested in local government issues.
“Politics is the power of the herd,” she said. “Political power relies on numbers. And I’m for individual sovereignty.”
Fay said she first became involved in local issues when word reached her that the Laurens County Council was spending taxpayer money irresponsibly. A self-described “data-oriented” person, Fay said she was hesitant to blindly believe “gossip” and decided to look into her neighbors’ claims for herself.
Through a request under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, Fay said she discovered that Laurens County Council was helping to fund Presbyterian College’s start-up pharmacy school.
“The county council had developed an economic incentive package, without the approval of a legislative body and in unrecorded meetings without notice to the public, to help defray the cost to start-up Presbyterian College’s School of Pharmacy,” she said.
“I sent them (county council) a letter saying they are violating the laws,” she continued. “Then I sued them.”
Fay said after filing her lawsuit against Laurens County Council, she began to understand the depth of what she described as cronyism woven throughout government in South Carolina. Laurens County online court records indicate the suit was dismissed by the court on Jan. 19.
“The judiciary is essentially closed to the public,” she said. “The Legislature has ownership interest in the judiciary because the legislature appoints members (of a judicial screening committee).”
Fay recalled she was shocked by what she described as the arrogance of public officials during a courtroom visit.
“The legal profession uses insider access to obstruct public access by delaying and refusing to schedule litigation matters, like they did with me,” she said. “They do it by twisting the written rule of law into meanings they invent as ‘superior expertise.’”
Fay said it was her courtroom experience that prompted her to create the Laurens County Citizen’s Watch website. On the website, she says each citizen has “individual sovereignty,” and authority ultimately belongs to them, not public officials.
While gathering information for her website, Fay said she came across the South Carolina Policy Council’s website. The Policy Council is The Nerve’s parent organization.
“The S. C. Policy advocates principles that are dear to me,” Fay said. “I was so excited to hook up with the Policy Council because they’re doing the stuff that I believe in.”
“I’m data oriented; I seek information,” she continued. “I thought it was a natural partnership.”
Fay credits her career as an engineer is helpful when it comes to her work as a Citizen Reporter for The Nerve, noting that there was a “huge negative impact for failure to comply with the rules of design and operation.”
She maintains that it is not the political system that needs amending so much as it is the recognizing of individual power.
“No one is holding them (politicians) individually accountable,” she said “My boss holds me accountable. … Every public official is accountable, whether they are elected or appointed.”
The Nerve’s Citizen Reporter program seeks to build a collaborative, statewide network of local watchdogs who monitor and report on government.
In an effort to promote government accountability and transparency, the Citizen Reporter program allows grassroots activists like Fay to contribute to The Nerve in a number of ways, including writing traditional news stories, filming public meetings and submitting Freedom of Information Act requests.
Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.