Columbia -- Taxpayers spent $2,235 for the state's environmental protection board and two staffers to hold an overnight, out-of-town retreat that few members of the public attended.
The cost of the Greenville session isn't a huge expense in the context of the Department of Health and Environmental Control's $80 million state budget, but critics question why the state needed to spend money for meetings away from the agency's main office in Columbia.
Columbia is more easily accessible to most people than Greenville, since the capital city is in the middle of South Carolina and Greenville is in the state's northwest corner, critics say. With possible changes in the direction of DHEC, it is important to ensure most people have easy ways to attend meetings, they say.
"It's not a smart time to be conducting the public's business in a place that does not facilitate full participation," said Columbia lawyer Bob Guild, who has often tangled with DHEC and now is concerned the agency will become too accommodating to business under Gov. Nikki Haley.
Board chairman Allen Amsler, who did not return telephone calls to The State to discuss the meeting cost, said in November the session was open and not intended to shut out public participation. He described the retreat as an opportunity for board members to brainstorm ideas. Fewer than a dozen members of the public attended.
Records show DHEC spent $703 for six board members, a staff attorney and a clerk to stay at a hotel for the Nov. 17-18 meetings.
DHEC also spent $200 renting a board room at the Holiday Inn Express Suites on North Main Street in Greenville, according to the agency's response to an open-records request from The State newspaper. DHEC spent $821 for mileage and $91 on meal money, the response said. The six board members received another $420 in per diem payments, or $70 each, the records show.
The entire DHEC board attended the retreat. Those members are Amsler of Lexington, Mark Lutz of Mount Pleasant, Kenyon Wells of Lexington, Clarence Batts of Pacolet, Ann Kirol of Rock Hill and John Hutto of Orangeburg. Batts is the only board member who lives in the Greenville area. Haley appointed the board in early 2011, and the panel has been working on changes at the agency, which Haley has said should be more business friendly.
During the retreat, the board discussed a recent -- and hotly disputed -- decision to allow dredging at the port of Savannah, despite a bevy of questions about how the deepening project would affect water quality and a rare freshwater marsh nearby.