Council Answers Travel Concerns

WINNSBORO – During County Council’s second public comment portion Monday night, Fairfield resident Beth Jenkins took Council to task regarding their annual trip to Hilton Head to attend conferences, which, since 2009 she said, has cost taxpayers more than $20,000.

Jenkins said the Council members’ accommodations were “not acceptable,” and that Council has abused their position and that Chairman David Ferguson (District 5) was ultimately responsible for holding Council members accountable.

“I think that Mr. Perry (Dwayne Perry, District 1), in a two-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath with eight people; (Mary Lynn) Kinley (District 6) this year in a four-bedroom villa, is not acceptable accommodation,” Jenkins said. “I do consider them luxury. I do think this policy has been abused. It’s been going on for a long time.”

Jenkins said Council owed the citizens an explanation, as well as some reimbursement to the taxpayers.

“There is no reason for any of you to be in a villa with X-boxes, with two, three, four bathrooms on the lagoon or the golf course,” Jenkins said. “That is not acceptable and it does need to stop.”

Vice Chairman Perry admitted that he has taken his family with him to the Hilton Head conferences, and said that if there was money owed to the taxpayers for those trips, he should pay it.

“When we first started doing this, there was no intent,” Perry said. “I was perfectly comfortable going down the three or four days for the conference, but it was also told to me that the amount we were paying was actually more than we could have been paying if we stretched that timeframe out to five or six days versus three or four days. I was not aware that that was prohibited. If that had been prohibited, or if I had been aware of that, I would have been going right by the book. It is being reviewed right now and we’re just waiting to get feedback. If that’s something that’s owed, I feel like that’s something I should pay back.”

Kinley said she paid the “extra excess” for her Hilton Head stays.

“We were given totals, and Mr. (former County Administrator Phil) Hinely kept us at those rates,” Kinley said. “They are being looked at now, and nothing was deliberately done.”

Councilwoman Carolyn Robinson (District 2) said Hilton Head was not the most convenient place to hold these County conferences, and often Council members find that the only accommodations available are the multi-bedroom villas.

“I don’t know if any of you have been to Hilton Head in the middle of the summer,” Robinson said. “Everything down there is geared to be rented for a week. They have the one hotel at Palmetto, and they have to keep so many rooms blocked for their guests. That leaves condos as the only place you can go. They’ll rent them to you for three or four or five days, but they are going to be assured of getting their full week’s rent. That’s what we’ve been doing.”

Robinson said Council has a maximum of two conferences a year scheduled in the budget every year. Attending these, she said, is a benefit to Council members.

“I know the next thing we’re going to hear is ‘Well, just don’t go’,” Robinson said. “That’s the next thing that’s going to be coming from this crowd and from the citizens. You have no idea, unless you’ve never been involved. You take advantage of it. When you first start out, you go down and you start attending classes. Government 1 and Government 2, and you are introduced to almost every subject that will be facing us as an elected official. It’s Government 101, it’s Finance, it’s dealing with the elderly. You have to sit through those classes so you can be certified.”

Robinson said the contacts made at these conferences were invaluable. She said after the initial classes, the conferences offer updates every year, as well as workshops.

“So that you can keep up with those type things and not put us in a position that we’re going to be sued because we’re not doing the right thing,” Robinson said. “Folks, this is government. If we don’t keep up, we’re going to have that many more lawsuits brought against us.”