Horry County Council’s decision to publish council member expense reports online should be praised.
That kind of transparency is sorely needed at all levels of government, and we’re pleased to see the council embrace openness.
That being said, some of the expenses mentioned in those reports should raise questions about how our elected leaders are spending your money.
For example, some council members forked out thousands of public dollars at restaurants and bars this year.
County policy forbids council members from using the county credit card to purchase alcohol, but officials are allowed to pay for meals related to “legitimate governmental business,” according to the county’s policy.
Councilman Johnny Vaught, who had the most expenses of any official at just over $5,000 from January through September, said he often uses the county card to pick up lunch tabs for his constituents.
Vaught said he refuses to accept free dinners from residents because he doesn’t want any appearance that someone is buying his influence.
We agree it would be unethical for elected officials to accept gifts or extravagant meals, but there is nothing stopping elected officials from buying their lunch with their own money.
We understand the need for purchasing food during trips to conferences or at organizational meetings.
But council members need to be sure the county credit card doesn’t become the go-to payment method when they want to talk out a zoning problem over burgers.
Keep in mind, the released reports do not indicate council members exceeded their individual budgets. They’re allowed up to $4,000 for expenses each fiscal year (July 1-June 30), and any extra money from the previous year rolls over to the following one.
Even though they are within their budgets, we would argue that county leaders and the public would be better served by limiting council member expenses to conferences, training sessions, technology (tablets, data) and meals at out-of town establishments.
We were pleased to learn county officials have joined a group of other elected leaders in asking the S.C. Association of Counties to hold its annual meeting at a more affordable location. This summer, the county spent more than $13,000 in Hilton Head for the last gathering.
We also agree with councilman Harold Worley’s proposal to eliminate council credit cards and instead force councilmen to pay for their expenses out of their own pockets, then apply for reimbursement.
Regardless of what county officials decide to do with their credit card policy, we suspect council members will be more mindful of their purchases now that those expense reports are being published.
And that’s a positive sign.
Transparency is important, but stewardship is too.