When elected officials spend public funds, taxpayers trust them to do so in the open. Public officials should never have undisclosed financial interests in, or ties to, the business they transact on behalf of the government they represent. Those who do so either profit personally from the arrangement, or raise a cloud of suspicion that destroys public confidence in their service.
It is shocking to discover such a cloud around Columbia County School Board Chairman Wayne Bridges.
In seeking approval last week for bids for electrical system up-grades for county schools, Super-intendent Tommy Price showed trustees a list of companies who had submitted bids. The two lowest bidders had withdrawn, citing problems with their calculations.
That left Edgefield Construction Inc. as the low bidder, at $905,012. After a protracted argument about the validity of the bids, trustees awarded the job to Edgefield Construction.
Bridges now admits that he is a paid consultant of Edgefield.
Im doing some accounting work and tax consulting for Edgefield Construction, says Bridges. The chairman argued strongly in favor of awarding the bid during the school boards deliberations, yet at no time did he disclose his ties to the company. Then, Bridges joined three other trustees voting in favor of the bid, with only Lee Muns opposing.
I meant to abstain on that vote, Bridges now says, acknowledging that Edgefield Construction would have won the bid even without his vote. I screwed up I had all intentions and meant to do it.
Bridges contends his involvement with Edgefield Construction doesnt include any work on the bidding process. Im not going to get into bidding at all - Im just doing consulting on accounting for current work, and on taxes, Bridges says. Most of his work, he adds, has involved Edgefield Construction partner Bettis Rainsfords acquisition of a small chain of South Carolina convenience stores.
All of that may be true. But while Bridges may not directly profit from Edgefield Constructions winning bid, its clear that any company has more money to hire consultants when it wins bids and gets more business.
Bridges has never demonstrated any ethical taint. During his 2 1/2 years of service, he has earned enough benefit of the doubt for us to believe that his failure to disclose his ties to Edgefield Construction and subsequent failure to abstain from voting was a one-time lapse in judgment.
Voters, however, will be the final arbiter when Bridges has the opportunity next year to seek re-election - and like Bridges, they are unlikely to abstain.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.