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An editorial: What’s the City of Loris trying to hide?

     Editor’s note: A printer’s error resulted in some letters from one column in this editorial being lost in our print edition. As a result, we are providing the full editorial, here, for all of our readers.

     We were, quite frankly, stunned two weeks ago when bids for a new garbage collection contract were opened during a Loris City Council meeting, the documents reviewed by members present, but shielded from public view.

     Our request for copies were denied, apparently at the instruction of Mayor Henry Nichols, who was not present for the meeting.

     Neither was city attorney Mike Battle. We would like to think the outcome might have been different had Battle been present to offer sound legal advice on what we believe was a very routine matter until elected leaders apparently instructed appointed staff to keep those documents under lock and key for further city review.

     We believe Jay Bender, a media attorney in Columbia we consulted following the May 7 meeting, got it just right when he challenged the legality of withholding those documents from public view, and the wisdom of keeping secrets from both the public who elected them and the bidders interested in doing business with the city.

     “I don’t see any justification for not releasing those bids to the public,” Bender told us. “They are documents that council received during a meeting, those documents are to be made available immediately.”

     Further, Bender said withholding public documents creates an unnecessary level of doubt.

     “All that happens when you do that is you create skepticism,” Bender said. “You create skepticism among the vendors who are submitting bids, and you create skepticism among the public.”

     City Administrator Damon Kempski said keeping the documents secret, at least temporarily, was an effort to avoid confusion. Apparently he, or his bosses, believe the public has less than sufficient brain-power to understand competing bids.

     Give the city time, Kempski essentially said, and the bids will be translated into more simple terms, the better to ensure everyone understands the “apples to apples,” or not, nature of the competing bids.

     Council made its decision last Wednesday night, picking from two bidders, a third dropping out, and apparently going with the low bidder. Sort of.

     It was only a full day after council’s vote, last Thursday, that the city partially responded to our request, providing only a city generated single-page “2018 Bid Cost Proposal Comparison” for us to digest, undoubtedly by taking small bites.

     It was only a day ago, after we began making requests for the documents from every council member we could find – most did not return our calls – that City Hall allowed us to view and photograph the actual bid documents.

     After reviewing the city’s comparison, and the actual bids, we find that while Jordan Waste, Inc. of Marion appeared to have the low bid, both residential and commercial customers will be paying more than they would under the proposal from Waste Industries of Conway.

     We also find that Jordan’s bid contains potential future rate increases tied to the price of fuel that were not contained in the Waste Industries proposal.

     A more thorough analysis of the bids, by us, simply wasn’t possible in the few hours we had before deadline for this edition. City leaders, however, had two weeks and provided none of the comparisons that were used to justify temporarily treating the bids like state secrets.

     We don’t know if Jordan’s pledge to provide free Port O Jons and dumpsters for Loris festivals and a pittance, about $1,000 to the city’s recreation department, swayed council’s decision. We’re left to wonder.

Budget secrets, too

     If keeping the public in the dark on a relatively simple contract worked for city leaders, why not do the same with a new budget?

     Council, supposedly breaking for supper between meetings held just an hour apart last Wednesday evening started budget talks, and apparently carried on for ten minutes or so, without notifying the public waiting outside.

     Innocent and inadvertent? Even if we provide the benefit of doubt, here, it’s clear that council had a thick document containing spending proposals for the year that begins July 1, and chose to keep that secret, too.

     That is unprecedented in our experience. Budget proposals are clearly public documents once they are in the hands of elected leaders. We’ll grant that managers and administrators can work on those documents without the public looking over their shoulder, but it’s the public that elects the mayor and council, and the public in most cases has every right to view not just the documents they approve, but those they are considering.

     Secrets, as attorney Bender rightly pointed out, breed suspicion. We are left wondering just what city leaders in Loris are trying to hide.

     A clue, perhaps, comes from a source telling us that the budget plan includes some pretty hefty pay hikes for select city employees.

     There’s nothing wrong with pay hikes when they are justified, and if that’s what is before council its members should have no trouble providing that justification.

     Otherwise, we’re left to wonder who’s playing favorites with employees using taxpayer funds.

     We also have to wonder if the city’s financial health is so strong that anything beyond modest cost of living raises are justified. City leaders can’t possibly know, they’ve yet to provide the office of the South Carolina Treasurer with audits for fiscal years 2015 and 2016, despite claiming real urgency to get that job done two years ago.

     Delinquent audits come with a penalty, the state Treasurer authorized “to withhold certain funding until an audit is completed,” the SC Treasurer’s website says.

     Again, we have a lot of questions, though one seems paramount.

     What, exactly, is city government in Loris trying to hide? – Deuce Niven