editor@latinonewspaper.net | 03-Mar-2021 09:42:53 pm

Greenville County’s trash utility bound for 3-day Asheville retreat on customers’ dime

The Greater Greenville Sanitation District set aside $14,307 for the 2021 budget workshop

Escrito el 19 Feb 2021
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Greenville County’s trash utility bound for 3-day Asheville retreat on customers’ dime

The Greater Greenville Sanitation District set aside $14,307 for the 2021 budget workshop

By Anna B. Mitchell amitchell@postandcourier.com

The Greater Greenville Sanitation District on Washington Street in Greenville. Records show this utility, which provides garbage pickup to 54,000 households in Greenville County, plans to spend up to $14,000 on a three-day retreat for its leaders in Asheville, Feb. 26-28, 2021.

GREENVILLE — Leaders of the utility that provides garbage pickup to 54,000 households in Greenville County are packing their bags and heading to Asheville’s Omni Grove Park Inn resort on Feb. 26.

The reason: To go over spending priorities in 2021.

This year’s trip, which stretches three days from Feb. 26 to Feb. 28, will cost the Greater Greenville Sanitation District just under $12,000. The utility has also set aside $2,400 in contingency funds, bringing the estimated total to $14,307 — all for about seven hours’ worth of work.

The entire tab will be picked up by its customers.

It’s far more than the utility has spent on retreats in past years, though its out-of-town destination is consistent. The utility’s director defended these trips as a necessary getaway to focus on complex issues, but at least one government watchdog views it as nothing more than a wasteful junket.

The GGSD operates largely outside the public eye, as one of 30 “special purpose districts” in Greenville County that hold governing and taxing authority for a narrow list of services to the public. That balkanized approach, which includes districts for fire service, sewer service, lights, parks, the downtown airport and the downtown arena, is a holdover from the days before South Carolina’s counties governed themselves.

The result is a web of commissions and boards across the county, and across the state, with little to no scrutiny from the public or the press.

That void in oversight has led to excessive spending and misconduct at several of these little-known agencies across the state, as detailed in The Post and Courier’s Uncovered investigation. The first installment, published Feb. 14, detailed how corruption has flourished in South Carolina because of toothless ethics laws, weak state and federal law enforcement efforts and the decline of local news organizations and other community watchdogs.

In this vacuum of scrutiny, officials gorged on a buffet of perks, including travel to lavish resorts, dining at pricey restaurants and snagging government discounts unavailable to ordinary citizens. The newspaper is teaming up with smaller papers across the state to expose even more public misconduct.

In response, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and at least four lawmakers are calling for more scrutiny and fewer ethics loopholes for the state’s many special purpose districts.

Every month, the GGSD’s five-member board meets in a nondescript single-story building off West Washington Street near downtown Greenville.

Typically, no one from the public attends, except for one regular: Greenville resident Ed Paxton, who has a particular passion for leaf pickup.

The Post and Courier asked for records of retreat spending at GGSD since 2017 and found the utility had twice taken staff and board members to the Dillard House resort in Dillard, Ga., and once to the Esmeralda Inn in Chimney Rock, N.C. Total retreat cost over five years, including estimated costs in 2021: $34,541.

Before 2020, per-person costs for the three-day jaunts ranged from $326 at Dillard to $561 at the Esmeralda Inn.

When the GGSD opted for an in-house retreat in 2020, spending dropped to $139 a person, covering lunch for staff and board members and dinner that night for 21 people when spouses joined the group.

But this year, 13 people are traveling to Asheville, including four of the five board members, six staff members and three spouses. Total cost per person: $1,100.

The Grove Park Inn boasts on its website a “luxury experience” as the “ultimate” destination in Asheville. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the resort opened a century ago on the back end of the Gilded Age when Vanderbilts were still living in the neighborhood.

The Greater Greenville Sanitation District serves about 54000 customers west of the city of Greenville. Source Greenville County GIS.

The Greater Greenville Sanitation District’s Executive Director Steve Cole said the retreats serve an important purpose. He needs a day of undivided attention from his five-member board, he said, and getting them in a setting away from home has historically been the best way for his $17 million utility to do that.

In the works, among a range of personnel and contractual issues, is the utility’s plan to build a new $14 million headquarters on 51 acres off S.C. Highway 124. The utility is also at the center of a fiercely competitive solid-waste industry, with private haulers going head to head for business against the GGSD.

Cole said spending more on this year’s retreat — about double per person more than any previous year — is also a byproduct of having not held an out-of-state retreat in 2020.

“Last year, we spent basically nothing for our budget retreat,” Cole told The Post and Courier. “This year, you look at it between the two years, and you look at the previous years, we’re spending pretty much the same across a two-year average.”

Lynn Teague with the League of Women Voters in Columbia called this year’s Asheville retreat “an out-of-state junket.”

“There is no reason that they need to go to the Grove Park Inn in Asheville to do the retreat and thereby making what is in theory a public meeting something quite different,” Teague said. “How many citizens are going to travel to Asheville to keep an eye on what they’re up to? It even makes it hard for local news. Yeah, you’re looking at having to send a journalist out, probably the entire day being taken up driving and sitting through meetings.”

Taft Matney, a Statehouse lobbyist who handles communications for several special purpose districts in Greenville County, said he emphasizes to his clients that they be transparent and professional in their approach to governance as a means of building and maintaining trust with the public.

“If the door is open and you show there is nothing to hold back and you are open and honest with your needs, they are generally accepted,” said Matney, who is also a Mauldin City Councilman.

Matney noted that the Mauldin meetings have gotten a lot more attention from the media since coronavirus compelled them to go online.

No news outlet has ever covered a GGSD budget retreat, and Cole said that up until 2014, his agency did not post the meetings publicly even though a quorum of commissioners was present. The GGSD posted an agenda for its budget retreat for the first time in 2020.

“They never posted an agenda,” Cole said. “They never posted a meeting was being held. They never posted anything.”

This is a violation of state law.

Under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, all public bodies must post meetings and have an agenda available for review 24 hours ahead of time.

Ignorance of state law, Cole admitted, was no excuse, but he said compliance has improved at GGSD in recent years. Cole first came to the GGSD in 2011 as its finance director, having worked in the private sector before that. Posting retreats as meetings, he said, “never came up in conversation” before he took over as executive director in 2015.

And holding out-of-town retreats is part of the agency’s culture, Cole said, that he inherited from his predecessors.

“They’ve been doing that for years,” Cole said of the out-of-town retreats. “I mean, years.”

The South Carolina Home Rule Act established county governments in 1975. So it was that in 1968, the S.C. General Assembly approved Act 1543 giving an independent board of commissioners in Greenville the power to charge fees and collect taxes for garbage collection in a section of the county west of the city of Greenville, whose services up to that point came primarily through the textile mills that had dominated the area’s economy for decades.

The sanitation district’s travelers will arrive at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn on Friday, Feb. 26. The board and staff will meet for seven hours on Feb. 27, breaking for an hour and a half in the middle for lunch. They depart the next day.

On the Feb. 27, two hours will be open to the public. The other five will be in executive session — i.e., doors closed.

Cole said he has clarified with the utility’s attorney when and how to hold those discussions without violating FOIA.

“From this point forward, we’re going to have an agenda,” Cole said. “These items are going to be discussed in open, these others will be discussed in executive session, and the two will not intermingle.”

He said the meeting this year will also be recorded and minutes taken, and the budget that emerges from the retreat will, as in past years, be presented at a regular meeting of the GGSD board of commissioners at their Greenville headquarters.
By Anna B. Mitchell amitchell@postandcourier.com
Post & Courier

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