Council refuses to show donors for incorporation

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COLUMBIA --- The Lower Savannah Council of Governments has refused to disclose a full list of donors supporting an incorporation effort in Aiken County after two Freedom of Information Act requests made by state Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken.

Mr. Ryberg asked the consulting organization to disclose the donors and expenditures of the Graniteville-Vaucluse-Warrenville incorporation effort. On Aug. 26, voters in Graniteville, Warrenville and Vaucluse will decide whether the three communities should be combined into one.

"There ought to be complete transparency," Mr. Ryberg said. "I think the people deserve to know who's financing one of the most important things they're going to vote on in their lives, and that's whether or not they're incorporated."

The council's assistant executive director, Connie Shade, declined to respond to Mr. Ryberg's criticism, pointing instead to a letter the group's attorney sent to Mr. Ryberg.

In the letter, received Tuesday, the attorney cited attorney-client privileges and a gifts exemption under FOIA in explaining why the full donor list was not revealed.

In July 2006, the council entered into an agreement with a group called the Graniteville Incorporation Committee "for the management and administration of grants" for incorporation, the letter states.

The council administered funds on behalf of the Graniteville Incorporation Committee to help with typical exploratory activities, such as submitting required information to the South Carolina Secretary of State's office, the attorney's letter said.

A letter from the council to Mr. Ryberg says $41,400 was collected as of Friday, and of that, $30,000 was spent on legal services.

"It is not unusual for those persons to request assistance from the local council of governments in administering their finances," the attorney's letter read. "Such was the case here."

Parties must gather and submit information to the Secretary of State to make sure the area is eligible to be incorporated, the letter states.

"Obviously, these persons must contribute or solicit funding to pay for the costs ... " the letter continues.

Furthermore, the attorney's letter states, only private donations were gathered, and the council "acted as an administrator on a contract basis."

Bill Rogers, the executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, said it appears the group may withhold its donor list.

"I suspect this does fall into the FOI exemption for anonymous gifts to a public body," he said. "The law mentions universities and museums, which was likely the intent of the wording, but does not limit donations to those types of business."

But, Mr. Rogers added, it is unclear why the group would keep the full donor list a secret.

"Unfortunately, when something like this comes along with political ramifications, the public is left out in the cold as to who is behind this effort," he said.

The council works with Aiken, Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Calhoun, and Orangeburg counties to "provide planning, assistance, and technical services to all local governments in the Lower Savannah Region," according to the attorney's letter.

Reach Sarita Chourey at (803) 727-4257 or sarita.chourey@morris.com.

ELIGIBLE VOTERS


About 4,000 registered voters in Vaucluse, Warrenville and Graniteville will be eligible to vote in the Aug. 26 election to determine whether their three communities should be combined into a single city. The ballot will have six questions, including what to name the new entity, how the city council will be structured and whether representatives will be partisan or nonpartisan.


-- Morris News Service


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