Gaillard Reburial

Dr. Ade Ofunniyin, director of the Gullah Society, escorts Mayor John Tecklenburg (right) and his wife Sandy, as the mayor carries the skeletal remains of one of the 36 people found during the renovation of the Gaillard Center to a vault for reburial Saturday, May 4, 2019. Brad Nettles/Staff

Charleston City Council members say their audit of Mayor John Tecklenburg’s office is not political, isn’t personal, and has absolutely nothing to do with his wife.

It’s a good thing they cleared that up, because their first three questions were:

  • Why has the city printed business cards that include Sandy Tecklenburg’s contact information?
  • Did the mayor violate city policy by allowing the first lady to sometimes drive him around in his city-issued car?
  • And is it appropriate for Tecklenburg to reimburse the city for his wife’s expenses when she travels with him on business trips?

Councilman Harry Griffin raised these questions at Tuesday’s council meeting, and the city attorney’s office reported that it had looked into it and found nothing illegal or in violation of ethics laws.

The mayor said his wife is the city’s No. 1 volunteer, a one-person social services network, and declared that he’d done nothing wrong.

Then it got really ugly. “You just lied to all of us,” Griffin said. “You are allowing your wife to help you run the city. She wasn’t on the ballot, and she’s not going to be on the next ballot unless she decides to run against you.”

Like Griffin and two other council members so far.

Councilman Gary White, who has announced a mayoral bid, said Tecklenburg has violated at least three policies in the city employees’ handbook. And he suggested Mrs. Tecklenburg even had a key to City Hall, which the mayor quickly said wasn’t true.

“That’s one policy that didn’t get violated,” White quipped.

Ouch.

By publicly going nuclear, and flat-out calling the mayor a liar, Griffin just inserted Sandy Tecklenburg into the campaign. And that could backfire in a big way.

It’s a good thing Councilman Bill Moody stepped in and injected some measured words, because if mayoral candidates were the only ones saying this stuff it would look like little more than campaign-season high jinks.

Which is what some people are already saying.

The claims of misfeasance made Tuesday boil down to judgment calls, and the voters get to rule on those. But so far, this isn’t going Griffin’s way on social media. Spending an extra $10 to print Mrs. Tecklenburg’s info on the back of some of the mayor’s cards is not exactly Watergate.

In fact, some are asking why council is focused on business cards instead of drainage, traffic and the proliferation of downtown hotels.

Privately, some council members even say most of the stuff mentioned Tuesday is rinky-dink. But Moody pointed out the mayor’s wife isn’t insured to drive a city car, since she isn’t an employee, and that’s a fair point.

Eventually, council — including Tecklenburg — voted unanimously to conduct an internal audit of the mayor’s books. That’s good. If someone raises questions, it’s best to clear the air.

Unfortunately, an audit is unlikely to do that.

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While some of this is undoubtedly election-year grandstanding, there are council members who legitimately don’t like how the mayor runs City Hall … and never will. They think he is less than transparent, with them anyway. Councilman Keith Waring on Tuesday mentioned raises for some senior staff, saying it was hypocritical because the mayor tried to delay pay increases for rank-and-file city employees last year.

The mayor’s office says when special adviser Josh Martin departed, other staffers had to take on additional responsibilities and were given raises. And it’s true Tecklenburg asked to delay employee raises for six months, an idea that council shot down.

The mayor’s position was that a six-month postponement would have avoided that property tax increase. That may not make him the most popular guy among city employees, but it probably plays well with voters.

That is a legitimate debate, but dragging the mayor’s wife into this doesn’t look good — and only gives Tecklenburg an excuse to talk about her work with the homeless and prison ministries.

Which makes her critics look pettier than a controversy over double-sided business cards.

Some council members who aren’t running for mayor predict the audit will turn up more questions, or at least show some poor judgment. But if it doesn’t find proof of any wrongdoing, they concede, council will look pretty foolish.

Especially since the audit is due to arrive about a month before the mid-August filing deadline for this year’s mayoral race.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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