Charleston city council requested additional information (copy)

Charleston City Council's audit committee requested additional information on a contract local attorney Roy Willey had with the city from January 2016 through June 2017. Mikaela Porter/Staff 

A now mercifully finalized audit of Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg’s official spending spiraled so far beyond its original parameters that it would have been comical had it not been such a destructive and wasteful sideshow.

On Tuesday, Charleston City Council voted to accept the audit’s findings, which never amounted to anything particularly inappropriate, much less illegal. As such, the process isn’t expected to drag on any further.

And that’s a surprising but welcome turn of events given that just 24 hours earlier, the city Audit Committee, which includes all council members, voted to do a deeper dive into attorney Roy Willey’s employment by Mr. Tecklenburg’s legal division in the first 18 months of his term.

Mr. Willey had worked with Mr. Tecklenburg’s campaign in 2015 and provided legal counsel and other services in 2016 and through June 2017 for a total of about $84,000, according to city auditors. That wouldn’t be noteworthy except that in the latter half of 2017, he also volunteered on some City Council campaigns.

But state ethics laws don’t prohibit public officials from volunteering on political campaigns on their own time, so even if Mr. Willey had continued to receive city funds for non-campaign work during election season — which isn’t the case — it wouldn’t be a violation.

All of the issues scrutinized in this audit — business card purchases, use of city cars, unreimbursed travel expenses, family emails from a city account, contracts for a special assistant — are fair game for candidates to question during an election.

But without evidence or even compelling suspicion of anything illegal or improper, there was barely enough justification to start an audit at taxpayer expense, and there has certainly never been sufficient cause to expand it and drag it out.

Now that the mayor’s race is officially started in Charleston, it’s long past time for the candidates — two of whom are City Council members — to engage in a substantive policy debate rather than empty stunts. There is a lot of ground to cover.

And after the election, City Council should consider an ordinance similar to state ethics law that would delay new ethics investigations within 50 days of Election Day.

Fortunately, this audit process appears to have ended before such a cutoff date would have applied. It has nevertheless been a transparently political distraction. It’s not something worth repeating.

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On Monday, during the Audit Committee meeting, several City Council members spent stretches of a two-hour meeting expressing their concern for the people of Charleston, and their sense of duty as leaders of the city.

That’s why people ought to get involved in local government. But there is a glaring disconnect between ideals of civic responsibility and the pettiness on display recently by City Council.

The people of Charleston need practical policies and sensible solutions that can improve life in a growing, changing city. We need leadership and compromise. We need thoughtful discussion and good-faith debate.

We do not need shameless political theatrics.

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