Chamber official refuses to return unapproved $5,000 fee

James Island Mayor Bill Woolsey, who took office Sept. 1, said he is considering taking action on checks that former Mayor Mary Clark wrote over the summer.

JAMES ISLAND -- An executive director of a newly formed chamber of commerce rejected appeals Wednesday to return to the town a $5,000 membership fee paid without Town Council oversight.

"You can kiss my a--!" Sherry Hering said when asked by The Post and Courier for a response to calls by some town residents for the money to be refunded voluntarily.

The town's new mayor, Bill Woolsey, said Monday that while scrutinizing records, it was discovered that former Mayor Mary Clark, whose daughter, Karen Clark Thompson, is one of two executive directors, sent the chamber five $1,000 checks over the summer.

The funds were paid without council's knowledge or approval, Woolsey and some council members said.

The town has been without a budget since July 1, and council hopes to consider one Sept. 21. Before a budget workshop Wednesday, Woolsey said two of the checks Mary Clark wrote to the chamber were issued in June, during fiscal year 2009-2010, and three more were written in July, when the town had no budget.

Woolsey, who was elected Aug. 3 and took office Sept. 1, said he is considering actions that he cannot yet disclose regarding a number of checks written over the summer. He would not comment when asked if he's considering bringing an outside authority to look into town spending.

Woolsey said Clark issued the checks from a mayor's discretionary fund that had been budgeted for the fiscal year at $50,000. The fund ended up overdrawn by $22,000, he said. Woolsey said other checks were written from the fund, also apparently without council being notified.

Woolsey said $15,000 in town funds provided to James Island Charter High School had been previously approved by Town Council. He said he supports that expenditure, contrary to what was reported Thursday, Sept. 16.

Meanwhile, two attorneys who live in James Island are urging Woolsey and council to sue, if necessary, to get back the $5,000 for the chamber. David L. Savage and Britt Travis said they were appalled to learn this week about the money sent to the chamber.

Savage said he phoned Hering this week, told her he is a James Island resident and asked her to voluntarily return the $5,000 that the town gave to the chamber. "The call was pleasant and lasted about 20 seconds, with a response of, 'OK, thank you for the call,' " Savage said.

Travis and Savage have filed Freedom of Information Act requests seeking town financial records.

Travis said what initially triggered his effort to get the records and look at the finances was a $49,000 contract the town granted in April to Mary Clark's son, Julian Clark, who already held a controversial $26,000 town contract for web master services.

The larger contract, for GIS mapping services of roads and other infrastructure, was awarded on a 2-0 council vote. Two council members who said they would have opposed the contract were absent at that meeting. Mary Clark abstained from voting on it.

Council two weeks later refused to reconsider approval for the contract.

"When they broke the story about the contract with her son, I started e-mailing the town. I think it's a conflict of interest," Travis said.

He said that as far back as the spring, he requested town financial records under the Freedom of Information Act concerning any town funds that ended up in the hands of Clark's family.

When the town did not budge, Savage joined Travis in prodding the town to release the records. The attorneys maintain that they were stalled, told the records would cost them "hundreds of dollars" to obtain -- and that they never received anything.

The attorneys said they relaxed their efforts to get the records when the town's election loomed, hoping for a change in administration.

Mary Clark refused to comment this week.

Savage and Travis said they were alarmed again to hear about the funds sent to the chamber.

"I'm just truly amazed. I never believed (Mary Clark) had such gall," Savage said. "It's got me infuriated. If we don't raise a stink, people will start accepting this as the norm, and they will never have any confidence in local government."

Savage said he has not given up getting the documents, and expects that Woolsey will provide what the previous administration did not.