WINNSBORO — The new agenda format at Fairfield County Council meetings has resulted in constituents and council members having dialogue about council travel policy and expenditures related to annual conferences at Hilton Head.
At Monday night’s meeting, resident Beth Jenkins raised questions pertaining to council accommodations at Hilton Head for the S.C. Association of Counties annual conference.
Jenkins cited the Fairfield County Government Procedures Manual policy for reimbursement for travel and subsistence expenses which states, “A traveler on official business will exercise the same care in incurring expenses and accomplishing an assignment that a prudent person would. Excess cost, delays or luxury accommodations unnecessary or unjustified in the performance of an assignment.”
Jenkins said the accommodations in condo villas that included rooms for council members’ family members was in excess and violated that policy.
During the county council time following the second public comment time, Councilwoman Carolyn Robinson explained that the employee policy for travel did not apply to county council members.
“(Those) guidelines are for staff, but we are not employees. We are elected officials,” Robinson said. “We do not have to abide by clocking in or by the holiday schedule and it is the same thing with state legislators. They are not employees of the state (just as) we are not employees of Fairfield County…. They also go to conferences.”
Robinson attempted to explain the logic behind the county paying for villa rooms for its council members, noting that there was a shortage of rooms at Hilton Head and that the rental process for condos could, in some instances, offer a cheaper rate, if county officials stayed seven nights instead of five.
In 2009, she said they stayed five nights. Robinson said the accommodations were booked by county staff, not council members. She said the county learned that a two-bedroom, the smallest available, was around $1,900 but if they went through another service they could book condos for seven nights for $1,550.
“I know the next thing we are going to hear is just don’t go. (But) you have no idea unless you’ve ever been involved (as a council member),” she said.
Robinson mentioned how council members needed to know how to avoid putting the county at risk of lawsuits, so some of the workshops addressed legalities, including one led by the state attorney general.
She said government courses given at the conferences introduce the officials to finance, government procedures, dealing with the elderly, etc. but “you have to sit through those classes and be educated because we have no other mechanism with which to do that other than sit up here and do it first hand.”
Robinson said that funds were set aside in the budget for the conference each year, a budget that underwent three readings, a public hearing and was approved by council.
“This is government and my position is always to try to do something that’s not going to put us in a position to be sued,” she said.
Two other members of council addressed the Hilton Head issue.
Vice chairman Dwayne Perry said in this case perception could, in fact, be reality and mentioned how the accommodation issue is being looked into.
“If something is owed back I believe I should pay that,” Perry said. “It was told to me that the amount we paid was more for three to four days than if we stretched the time frame out to five or six days. I was not aware that (kind of amenity) was prohibited. I consider myself to be a highly ethical person. I believe in doing things in order and by the book. I’ve always been like that.”
The accommodations are being reviewed now but feedback is needed.
“I am not in a position to know what that amount is, if any (needs to be repaid). If clarification is needed we are in the process of getting that information,” he said. “This is nothing where I tried to take advantage people or the county. I would never do that.”
Perry said he attended the conference with his wife and children. He said about three years ago the conference structure changed to be a four-day structure.
Councilwoman Mary Lynn Kinley told council and residents that she “paid the extra excess for that (accommodations). We were given totals that we could go and Mr. Hinely kept us at those rates. They are being looked at now and nothing was deliberately done.”
In other business related to public communications, interim County Administrator Milton Pope addressed an email county staff received from a constituent related to Councilman Mikel Trapp’s lack of attendance at county council meetings.
Pope said that after consulting an attorney, the county maintains council has no lawful authority for punitive action against another one of its peers when it comes to attendance. However, there is an encouragement policy placed in the council bylaws related to attendance.
Council withdrew into executive session to discuss an economic development matter related to the industrial park on Peach Road. After going back into session, council passed a motion to proceed with the economic development matters related to that industrial park and act upon legal advice on the acquisition of property for economic development.
Council also discussed recreation master projects during regular session. A full report of the recreation-related decisions will run in Tuesday’s edition of The Herald Independent.