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A carriage tour goes by Charleston City Hall on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Four candidates for Charleston mayor walk into City Hall …

It could have been the beginning of a joke.

One mayoral candidate presides over a meeting to hear the results of an audit into the finances of the incumbent mayor's — and mayoral candidate’s — office.

Which had been requested by another councilman/mayoral candidate, after he was handed a city-issued business card that included the name of the mayor’s wife.

Who was in the audience, along with yet another councilman/mayoral candidate and a sizable crowd for a Monday afternoon committee meeting.

Too bad no one was selling popcorn. Because this had all the makings of a three-ring, election-year circus. The only thing missing was a Big Top.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the campaign melee: Nobody called anyone a name, no one let loose a series of foaming-at-the-mouth tweets — and nary a soul uttered the words “witch hunt.”

City Council was civil, measured and mature.

Now, part of that was likely because a Columbia ethics attorney reported there was no evidence Mayor John Tecklenburg or his wife, Sandy, had personally benefited from any city business.

But it was also because mayoral candidate/Councilman Mike Seekings refused to allow himself or any of the other candidates in the room to play politics with the audit.

Seekings took the reins of statesmanship and diplomatically asked council — in not so many words — to refrain from the knucklehead stuff.

“This is the first we are seeing of this,” Seekings said. “Let’s do our due diligence.”

And no one crossed that line. Mayoral candidate/Councilman Gary White didn’t say a word, and even mayoral candidate/Councilman Harry Griffin — who called for the audit — played it straight.

“I need to read it first,” Griffin said.

The audit was a mix a bureaucratic hand-wringing — some expense reports from city personnel didn’t include enough detail — and instances of spending that the internal auditor and some council members called questionable.

• $1,000 toward a 90th birthday party for former Charleston County Councilman Lonnie Hamilton III.

• A $10,000 reception, including travel expenses, for the people who rescued a 4-year-old kidnap victim.

• $25,000 for the reinterment of slaves whose graves were uncovered during construction of the new Gaillard Center, flagged because the burial wasn’t put out for bid.

Michael Burchstead, an ethics attorney who’s worked for the State Ethics Commission and the attorney general, said none of this appeared to violate any laws, ethics or otherwise, under the strong-mayor form of government.

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“The mayor enjoys significant autonomy over day-to-day operations of the city, including spending decisions,” Burchstead reported. “No action of Mayor Tecklenburg or his family appears to be born out of a desire to use the office of mayor for financial gain, but rather they appear to be motivated by their interest in representing the citizens of the city.”

For nearly an hour, the city’s internal auditor recounted the findings, many of which focused on the mayor’s wife: How long it took Tecklenburg to reimburse the city for her travel expenses; how she was once issued a city laptop for a month; how the mayor, in two instances, requested budget increases for nonprofits where his wife volunteered; and, of course, those business cards.

The mayor could have taken umbrage at the insinuations, or thumped his chest in vindication afterward. But instead of post-modern presidential, he was polite and professional.

“As the attorney said, there was no economic interest in any of this for me or my wife,” Tecklenburg said. “I’m going to continue to serve, and I hope she’ll continue to help me.”

Although you couldn’t blame her if she didn’t.

The audit may provide some campaign fodder for each mayoral candidate, even Tecklenburg. What it didn’t do was show the real problems at City Hall, which is a lack of communication and honest differences of opinions about what Charleston should do, and how to do it.

“I never thought there was anything illegal, just some exercising bad judgment,” Councilman Bill Moody said. “There’s been a lack of attention to detail.”

That’s a legitimate debate to have, and hopefully it will come soon ... and be as civil as Monday’s meeting. Who knows, it could even help one — or all — of these four mayoral candidates.

They proved that, even at a circus, no one needs to act like a clown.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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