Every week there seems to be a new local government scandal in South Carolina. From the coast to the upstate, it seems more and more local officials are involved in scandal. The latest scandal involves now former Spartanburg County Clerk of Court Marc Kitchens. Kitchens resigned Wednesday after being arrested. Kitchens is accused of conspiring with a Spartanburg County real estate developer to sell drugs removed from the evidence room of the Spartanburg County Courthouse.
Kitchens’s acts are about as bright as those of Union County officials, who have paraded before the courts in recent weeks after the scandal that rocked most of the local leaders in one of Spartanburg’s neighboring counties.
Frankly, the problem is all throughout South Carolina. If officials are not acting downright corrupt, they are spending money on things that do not matter or benefit their circle of friends. They are increasing their own terms of office by a year. They are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars “investigating” one another. They are running up local government credit cards without concrete reasons. All the while, telling residents that essential services might have to be cut due to the economy and telling local government employees to take furloughs.
In sum, local governments in South Carolina are out of control. Take for example the historic property tax relief passed by the SC General Assembly back in 1998. That act was supposed to give local governments the money to give property owners tax relief. However, 12 years later, the tax amounts are the same or higher in real dollars in most locations as they were before tax relief. Indeed, in the past twelve years, there has been an explosion in local government spending, even with “conservatives” elected. The subsidy from the state, added to the revenues from local taxpayers makes that possible.
The people themselves share the blame. There is a disconnection between the voters and the local governments that affect their lives so. Most people know who their Congressman is. Far fewer can name their town council member or county council member. On the countywide level, most know who the Sheriff is, but far fewer know who the other elected county officials are. Even fewer voters cast informed votes for those officials.
Adding to the problem is the way the media covers politics. We live in a mass media age. When elections are run, the media focuses its attention on the larger races that get the attention across its market. That’s good business, but it does not help people to pay attention to the races that in their backyards.
When a scandal hits a local government, the local people are shocked. But, they shouldn’t be. For years now, South Carolinians by and large, and their media, have ignored local governments. Over the past ten years, the power and spending of those local governments over people’s lives have grown tremendously. Personal and petty decisions, and tax increases are allowed to stand because so many just are not paying attention. Some people might fear retribution. Some people might fear arguing with their neighbors. Most are uniformed of what local governments are doing.
Hopefully, the silver lining to the rash of local government scandals throughout South Carolina will be that the people and the media start paying closer attention to what local governments are up to. Make no mistake; there is an atmosphere in local government in which those who have been caught in scandals thought that their behavior would be overlooked. There is an atmosphere in which those who spend money on personal vendettas think no one will notice. There is an atmosphere in which those who raise taxes and fees, and even extend their own terms of office in non published meetings believe such will be unnoticed.
That is where we, the people, come in. We have the duty to do our local government officials the favor of creating an atmosphere in which scandal, pettiness and overreaching is unacceptable. We can do that by being informed, voicing informed opinions, and casting informed votes. In a system like ours, cleaning up the mess ultimately rests with us, the people.