Gaston Leader No Fan of Transparency

March 8, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveEfforts by Gaston residents to make town proceedings more transparent are not going over well with everyone.

At the March 2 town council meeting at least one council member voiced displeasure with a resident’s taping of the gathering.

“Getting back to this video thing; well, I know you can do it, but I don’t deal with that real well,” Counci lmember Marvin Pound said. “I just don’t like my stuff to be all over the news. I haven’t done anything. I live in this town and I’m not going to let people put me down.”

There has been some consternation in Gaston since the February town council meeting when Kay Rikard, a citizen reporter for The Nerve, taped the event.

Among other things highlighted during the Feb. 2 meeting was a question resident Loretta Mack posed to council members regarding how much the town was paying the IRS monthly in interest and penalties, the result of town officials failure to remit payroll taxes.

Mayor Pro Tem Charlie Sharpe responded, “I don’t know right now. The CPA is supposed to have that when he comes next month.”

Later, Mack expressed frustration with the council when they can’t answer her question.

“We ask these same questions month after month with no answers,” Mack says later. “Y’all should know. You’re in charge.”

The video was posted on both The Nerve and YouTube. It was later removed from YouTube, however, amid a squabble within the community about whether Rikard needed the council members’ permission to tape and post the video.

For a community of 1,500, Gaston has certainly had more than its share of problems over the past few years.

It was discovered in 2007 that Gaston officials had bilked the town out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, operating the municipality like a family business, according to a 2009 story in The Statenewspaper.

“Officials drove the town into debt steering jobs, bonuses, cell phones, meals and mileage reimbursements to themselves and relatives,” the paper wrote. “Members of two families were paid at least $288,000 in little more than two fiscal years, according to financial information obtained by The State.”

Gaston’s annual budgets averaged $398,000 during that period. By mid-2007, Gaston owed $202,000 to the Internal Revenue Service and state tax collectors for failing to remit payroll taxes.

Town officials also improperly borrowed $24,000 from First Palmetto Savings Bank while making spending and other decisions without formal votes by council, the paper added.

Ex-Mayor Larry Sharpe, former town administrator Jennifer Poole and Jessica Poole, who collected court fines, were indicted on charges of misconduct and embezzling at least $5,000 each. The three have confessed, according to court records, according to The State.

Gaston was so deep in debt that it disbanded its police force in January 2008. In addition to what it owed the IRS and S.C. Department of Revenue, it owed $45,300 in penalties to the state for failing to forward court fines or submit financial reports.

Today, the town is repaying the IRS at the rate of $2,500 a month, but even after all the turmoil of the past few years regarding bookkeeping lapses, Gaston leaders still don’t appear to be paying close attention to finances.

Although Sharpe said in February that a CPA would be at the March meeting to answer residents’ questions regarding debt owed the IRS, no CPA was on hand when town council met March 2.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022, ext. 110, or kevin@scpolicycouncil.com