Charleston City Council Spending

Charleston City Council has been digging through Mayor John Tecklenburg's expenditures the last few months. A review of their own spending the last four years shows they've spent over $100,000 on travel and attending conferences. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

The Charleston mayor’s race officially kicks off at noon Monday, when filing for the November election closes.

But don’t expect the campaigning to crank up until about 3 o’clock — which is when City Council hears the final results from an audit of Mayor John Tecklenburg’s office.

The timing is probably coincidental, but good luck convincing voters of that. Three members of council have announced plans to run against Tecklenburg, although only one of them has filed thus far.

See, no matter what the original intent of the audit, the optics are now undeniably and overtly political. Even the meeting’s agenda appears to have an agenda.

The audit committee on Monday has reserved time for council members to directly question the mayor, and the last item is “Discussion: Next steps.”

Here’s some advice: If the final audit includes nothing more titillating than some double-sided business cards, there should be no next step.

Otherwise, we’ll have PETA in here protesting council for beating a dead horse.

This saga began in the late spring, when someone handed Councilman Harry Griffin a business card with Sandy Tecklenburg’s name printed on it. He cried foul, demanded an audit and City Council unanimously voted in favor of it.

Council heard the preliminary findings last month. And those results were, charitably, a tad shy of Watergate.

Beyond the first lady’s business cards, the city auditor reported that employees in various departments didn’t fill out their expense reports correctly, and questioned the wisdom of the city spending $10,000 on travel and a reception for the people who rescued a 4-year-old Johns Island girl who was kidnapped.

That’s a simple fix. If council considers that bad judgment, change the amount of money the mayor can spend without its approval.

The report also found that the mayor never filled out his “Take-Home Vehicle Authorization Form,” which meant the city didn’t deduct $30 per month from his check.

Here’s a good question for the hearing: Did anyone ever tell the mayor there was such a thing as a Take-Home Vehicle Authorization Form? A good follow-up: Why didn’t the people charged with collecting such an important document gently remind the mayor after, say, a year or two?

He probably would have appreciated it, since he’s now on the hook for the tax implications of a take-home car, which the IRS considers compensation.

But mostly, the report focused on the mayor’s wife, which is not particularly good politics. The city lent Mrs. Tecklenburg a laptop for a month, she drove that take-home car (while the mayor was in it), and sometimes traveled with the mayor on business trips.

On at least one occasion, Tecklenburg had to be reminded to reimburse the city.

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Earlier this week, Post and Courier reporter Mikaela Porter reviewed City Council expenses dating back to January 2016. She found members had spent more than $100,000 in the past three years, mostly on travel. In a few instances, council members even took their spouses to various municipal league conferences ... and reimbursed the city afterward. Just like Tecklenburg.

There was nothing inappropriate in anything council members spent. And a Columbia ethics attorney, who’s worked for the State Ethics Commission and attorney general, said he found nothing illegal or unethical on the mayor’s part in the preliminary audit.

So expect some people to conclude we’re still talking about this because of the campaign calendar.

The real problem at City Hall is some council members don’t get along with the mayor. He doesn’t keep them in the loop as much as he should, and they’re upset he hired his friend Roy Willey to do contract legal work for the city ... and later helped some of their opponents in 2017 council races. Those are fair complaints, and driving the underlying tension here.

But they should just raise those issues, and debate changing the laws related to the mayor’s ability to hire outside counsel, instead of continuing to audit. At one point, there was even talk council would suggest another, external, audit.

Bad idea. To voters, that’s just going to look like they’re going to keep digging until they get the results they want.

There’s an old saying for that: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. Because, even folks who aren’t particularly Tecklenburg fans are beginning to call this ongoing investigation a witch hunt.

So, if there’s no smoking gun in Monday’s findings, council members better holster their weapons — before they end up shooting themselves, or the mayor’s November opponents, in the foot.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.