Why All the Secrecy

By Paul Gable

Several days ago, we ran a story about how South Carolina ranks dead last among the 50 states for freedom of information access to government information. Thursday night, we learned that Horry County is attempting to rank at the bottom of the state’s 46 counties for public disclosure of information about its actions.

Horry County Council voted 7-2 Thursday night to pass first reading of an ordinance that would allow the issuance of $8 million of general obligation debt while refusing to publicly state what the money will be used for. Council members Harold Worley and Marion Foxworth voted no on the ordinance while members Brent Schulz, Paul Price and Paul Prince were not present at the meeting.

This vote took place during the second specially called council meeting in three days, both dedicated to executive sessions on a Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation initiative called “Project Blue.”

Project Blue is the mystery project. So far, the public has heard it is bringing 1,000 jobs to the area and is the greatest thing for the area since sliced bread. However, while the EDC board members lobbied council intensively over the last 10 days, and reached out to allies in the business community to do the same, they totally refuse to publicly divulge any details about the project.

What are they hiding and why are they hiding it?

Who are the principals and how much are they investing in the project? What type and how much are the incentives involved? What insurance and other guarantees does the county have to protect public tax dollars invested? What and how much are the tax breaks offered? Whose money is at risk if the project fails?

These are all questions that should be provided to the public. If you want public money, especially public debt to finance a project, at least be prepared to make public the reasons. The devil is always in the details and these are what are being hidden.

This is the first time that we can remember council voting to issue debt with no explanation whatsoever. The ordinance requires three reading approval, which also requires public input before third reading. It’s difficult to see how public input can be legally claimed to have been held if all details about what the $8 million will be used for is withheld from the public.

Nobody is going to oppose a good project that will bring 1,000 new jobs to the county. So, why all the secrecy?

What are they hiding and why are they hiding it?

According to John Bonsignor, who was present for the approximately five minutes of open session, EDC board chairman Doug Wendel informed council no information would be made public about the project until a ground breaking or ribbon cutting ceremony was held months down the line.

Wendel is obviously whipsawing council on this one just like the bad old days of the Multi County Business Park votes of a dozen years ago. Remember the scripts prepared by B&C for council to follow on MCBP debate and votes? And certain council members, some quite obviously, followed the scripts quite diligently all the way into retirement. Even those who voted against the project were voted out of office in a guilt by association reaction.

This total disregard for transparency is compounded by the hypocrisy of the issue. Council chairman Tom Rice constantly espoused decreased government spending and keeping government out of the private sector during his run for the 7th Congressional District nomination. Now, with the nomination in hand, he chooses to ignore those statements.

If issuing $8 million of public debt to give to a private company is not increasing government spending as well as getting government seriously involved in the private sector, what is? And Rice won’t even tell us why!

Transparency with this council is gone. Council has already held more executive sessions, most related to EDC projects, under Rice’s chairmanship than it held in the seven plus years with Liz Gilland in the chair. Again – what are they hiding and why are they hiding it?

If current council members are willing to allow the EDC board to dictate to them what will be public and what will not; if they are willing to follow like sheep whatever demands Wendel and company make; if they are willing to hide from the public what they are doing and why they are doing it, then, we need a lot of new blood on council.

There is precedent. The 2000 and 2002 election cycles saw significant turnover in council representation when public dissatisfaction over the MCBP events was a major issue for voters.

Secret government is bad government because its only purpose is to hide from the public what is really happening. We are betting that when the final details of Project Blue are written, the EDC’s AvCraft debacle is going to look golden by comparison.

The Founding Fathers understood a well-informed citizenry was necessary for a good democracy. Obviously, good democracy is not in the interest of economic development in Horry County.



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