Missing the mark

Published 4:43 pm Wednesday, April 9, 2008

By Staff
When Beaufort County commissioners on Monday voted down a measure to withhold payment of a $297,000 gift to the Agape Health Clinic until the board’s rules of procedure could be revisited, they missed the mark.
The debate was not one of whether supporting a facility to offer dental care to the poor is a good thing — even the two commissioners who voted against the gift conceded in open session that dental care should be available to all. The actual debate that was shrouded by an emotional argument in favor of the clinic was whether the board had violated its own rules in hastily approving the gift at its March meeting.
We feel that they did.
According to the board’s rules, which it drafted and approved, to be included on the board’s agenda, an item has to be in the commissioners’ hands at least five days prior to the meeting at which the item will be considered. The rules do allow commissioners to add items to an agenda at any time with a majority vote. But the rules stipulate that item shall only be discussed.
A subsection of the rules explains that “no item” added to the agenda within five days of the meeting shall be “considered.” But the gift to the Rev. David Moore, who oversees the clinic, was added to the agenda and approved within half an hour of the March meeting being called to order. Moore showed up for the public-comment section of that meeting to ask for the funds, then he said he would like it to be approved that night. Commissioners voted unanimously to add the item to the agenda, then moved discussion of the item to the top of the list. Approval of the gift came soon after, with commissioners Hood Richardson and Stan Deatherage voting against it.
Richardson said the provision was added specifically to prevent such expenditures from being made without commissioners having adequate time to consider the measure.
There would have been no harm in discussing the gift to Agape in March and delaying a vote on the measure until Monday’s meeting. It would have given commissioners time to weigh the impact of appropriating such a large sum of money and for Richardson and Deatherage to make a case for approving a no-interest loan instead of a gift.
At the March meeting, Richardson warned against approving a gift that he said amounted to $.01 on the county’s tax rate. That’s a serious expenditure that should have been weighed more heavily before being approved.
By not tabling approval of the measure until a later date, the board did not adhere to its own rules, which calls into question the effectiveness of those rules. Spruill pointed out Monday that the only thing that “breathes life into these rules” is the commissioners’ adherence to them because the rules were drafted and adopted by the board.
If commissioners do not police themselves when it comes to following their rules of procedure, no one will police their conduct for them. Why have rules to make the board’s actions streamlined and consistent if those rules can be set aside by the board at will?
Commissioner Al Klemm hit the nail on the head when at the end of the discussion Monday he laid out the effectiveness of the work the Agape Clinic does in the community. But, he and the other four commissioners who voted against withholding payment to the clinic until the board’s rules could be examined and the legitimacy of its previous vote could be determined, missed the mark.
In effect, they told the public they serve that the body the administers its tax dollars is not beholden to the rules it drafted to ensure those dollars are spent wisely.