The reaction Fort Mill officials had to last week’s revelation that an organization the town has been working with was operating in violation of state law was disappointing, to say the least.
Sadly, it wasn’t unexpected.
For years now, Fort Mill Town Council members seem to run on auto pilot. That’s not to say all of their decisions are bad – most are not – but that’s largely due to the heavy lifting done behind the scenes by town staff. By and large though, Council seems to rubber stamp much of the businesses it decides, for better or worse, with little public discussion. Even when in those rare instances when Council engages in healthy debate and members raise skeptical question, a measure will pass with a unanimous vote.
There was neither healthy debate nor, apparently, any research prior to Council’s decision to allow Citizens for Historic Preservation free access to a public park to hold what they were told was a fundraising event for a nonprofit organization. We later found out Citizens for Historic Preservation had not registered with the state as a charity and state officials said that’s a violation of a state law designed to provide transparency into a nonprofit’s activities, including its finances.
What did town officials have to say when confronted with that information? Not much. Most refused to discuss it, and the one council member who did, Tom Adams, admitted he never considered to look into whether or not Citizens for Historic Preservation was properly registered as a nonprofit.
But even that admission was followed by a shrug.
We can only surmise that Adams’ nonchalance and the other council members’ silence was their way of saying “no harm, no foul.”
Oh, but there is harm.
For one thing, anyone who gave money to Citizens for Historic Preservation since it started raising money in 2013 did so thinking they were supporting a nonprofit venture when in fact they were supporting, what for all intents and purposes, could at the time be considered a for-profit business. Citizens for Historic Preservation is a group started by a couple that publishes a for-profit magazine and pays the mortgage on its building by charging that magazine rent, according to the group’s founder, who is also the magazine’s business manager. His wife is listed as the publisher.
Citizens for Historic Preservation claims it wants to help preserve historic Main Street buildings – starting with its own. It also wants to help building owners research their buildings’ history and get them registered as historic landmarks. All that takes money, the group’s founder says, thus the need to fund-raise.
One of the problems we have with this is the idea that Main Street property owners need a charitable handout. Some of the building owners we’re aware of have multiple real estate holdings. If they want to invest in their property, why don’t they do it themselves? The ones who may not have the liquidity to do that are certainly free to finance projects the same way most homeowners pay for renovations – by going to their bank and securing a loan.
Renovated historic buildings are certainly going to increase in value, so why should uninformed residents foot the bill without having a stake in the equity?
Another issue is the lack of transparency by Citizens for Historic Preservation. Because it wasn’t properly registered, it didn’t file financial statements. That means no record for the public to see how much money was raised and how it is being spent. It could be that some people would be OK with contributing to Citizens for Historic Preservation knowing its founders want to invest in their own building, but they should have the opportunity to make an informed choice.
The one good thing we can say about Citizens for Historic Preservation is it created a fun, new event for the town. The First Friday Fort Mill event that debuted Aug. 1 seems like the kind of thing we could use more of – things to do downtown. We’re all for that.
Perhaps the group can better serve the public by spending its time coming up with and promoting more events like that. And they should make it a for-profit venture if they wish. Just compensate the town for the use of police, who should be deployed by the police department and paid overtime if they are working on their free time, and public space.
As for the town council members, we say shame on you all, not only for not doing your homework, but for seeming not to care when your lack of oversight was exposed.
We’re glad there’s a special election in October to vote in a new council member to fill a recently vacated seat. Maybe some new blood is just what this lackluster council needs.