Woolsey foresees thriftier town

Bill Woolsey

ALAN HAWES

JAMES ISLAND -- Incoming Mayor Bill Woolsey has been fighting with the town to get a look at its financial documents, and after getting them through an unusual process, he said it's evident there needs to be some belt-tightening.

The town, which projected a budget surplus of $446,000 for the fiscal year ending June 10, instead finished with a deficit of $289,000.

Woolsey said the town has "plenty of money in the bank," which he noted outgoing Mayor Mary Clark has previously stated. "There is no danger that the town will be unable to pay its bills."

But, he said, the town "will need to bring its expenditures down to the level of its revenues."

Woolsey, who was sworn in Thursday but does not become mayor until Sept. 1, said he obtained town documents related to monthly spending after signing a "confidentiality agreement," in which he vowed to keep details in the documents secret until at least Sept. 1.

Woolsey signed the agreement Tuesday while believing the documents are public record, he said, and then on Thursday conferred with Town Attorney Bo Wilson, who advised him there's nothing the town can do if the agreement is violated.

"I don't think the town is going to pursue a remedy against me," Woolsey, a math professor at The Citadel, said.

Wilson was unavailable for comment Friday.

Bill Rogers, director of the S.C. Press Association, said it appears the documents Woolsey had to sign a confidentiality agreement to get are public records.

"Any citizen should have a right to see those documents, and certainly as an incoming mayor he (Woolsey) has a right, and a need, to look at those documents," he said.

Woolsey, who defeated Clark and three other mayoral candidates in the Aug. 3 election, said that when he asked for the documents as part of his effort to better understand the town's financial situation -- the budget was one of the issues during campaign season -- he was told at first he could have them. But then, he said, he was told his request would have to be approved by Clark and town consultant Roy DeHaven.

When Woolsey signed the agreement, he said, he felt that if he found no problems in the documents, then no harm was being done. And if problems turned up, he was going to talk about them.

The Post and Courier on Friday requested the same monthly spending records given to Woolsey after he signed the confidentiality agreement. Town Finance Director Preston Leigh said the newspaper's request will be considered.

"We have to run all financial records requests by the mayor," Leigh said. He said later Friday that documents would be available Monday. The newspaper, however, obtained the records from Woolsey.

Clark said Friday that she did not deny Woolsey any specific information, including the budget and related documents, but was concerned about the frequency that he was asking for information.

"He comes in, and kept coming in, every day since the election, wanting different information, so finally I said, 'You can get these things if you sign a confidentiality agreement'," Clark said. "I didn't know what he was going to ask for next."

Clark accused Woolsey of disseminating false information and added that she doesn't see why the matter is of public interest or the subject of newspaper inquiries.

"This was all started on false pretenses and has gotten into a ridiculous thing," Clark said. She said she'd like to leave office quietly.

"Let me go on with my life and get moved out of Town Hall, and then they can have it," she said of the incoming administration.

Rogers said the town has an obligation to protect the confidentiality of Social Security numbers or tax or medical records that might be contained in otherwise public documents. That doesn't appear to be an issue in the documents Woolsey obtained.

Rogers said he's never heard of a confidentiality agreement that includes an end date, as is the case for the one Woolsey signed. There are some restrictions on municipal documents, such as not using them to solicit business. But financial documents such as those Woolsey obtained can't be used to do that, Rogers said.

The agreement Woolsey signed states that, "The recipient acknowledges that all information in any form ('confidential information') provided by the town to the recipient heretofore or hereafter constitutes confidential and proprietary information and includes financial information of the town."

The agreement also states that "The recipient shall not disclose the confidential information to any person, or reproduce, copy or transmit it."

Woolsey said overspending appears to have caused the deficit, but he added he's still going over documents and is not ready to pinpoint particular culprits. He did note that among "troubling line items" in the documents are an actual outlay of $46,543 for a webmaster contract, which had been budgeted at $26,400.

Clark had been under fire after her son was awarded a contract to run the town's website and provide technical information about power lines, drainage and streets and roads throughout the town.

"There may be some reasonable explanation," Woolsey said of the webmaster expenses.

He also wondered, "How did a $446,000 surplus turn into a nearly $290,000 deficit? Where did more than $736,000 go?" Most likely, he said, there was never a reason to expect a budget surplus from 2009-10.

"The 2009-2010 budget followed the 'smoke and mirrors' approach of including hoped-for grants as a revenue item without accounting for the required expenditures of those grants. The grants never materialized," he said.

"Fortunately, regular town revenues were $627,833.47 beyond what had been budgeted, and town expenditures were approximately $100,000 less than budgeted. And that difference is the nearly $300,000 deficit that occurred."