Some eyebrows were raised years ago when the company of Charleston County Councilor Elliott Summey was awarded a contract to mine sand on land it had previously voted to buy with Greenbelt dollars. county, then transferred to the town of Awendaw for a future park. Now that we know more about how things turned out, more and more eyebrows are raised: Mr Summey’s company has mined a lot of sand, but the new park remains a distant dream.
Such concern is certainly justified because we still don’t know several important details about what happened, particularly how much money Mr Summey made and whether he compensated the city fairly as part of their deal. . One estimate put the value of the excavated earth and sand at $ 3.5 million. The most painful thing is that we do not know when or even if we will get these answers.
And that highlights the first problem the latest Uncovered installment of The Post and Courier uncovered: South Carolina’s lax ethics oversight of elected officials. Because he was doing business with a government entity, Mr. Summey was supposed to file a financial disclosure form with the State Ethics Commission showing how much his company had earned. But the figure he presented, $ 50,000, was just made up – a “placeholder” figure, in Mr Summey’s own words, which he inserted until he got further clarification from him. the commission on what he had to report. He claims that he was later told that he did not have to report the money he made, which seems odd given that state law clearly requires all elected officials to report “the source , type and amount or value of income, not including tax refunds. , of substantial monetary value received from a government entity.
If this is true, it means that our current ethics law allows an elected official, working through a private company, to make money from a land deal that he helped to conclude without have to declare it. No wonder Lynn Teague of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina lamented to our reporter Tony Bartelme that our current law does not give the Ethics Commission the tools it needs to verify whether public servants are accurately disclosing their income. from the government: “It is appalling that millions of dollars are not really accounted for.
Strengthening the state’s ethics law to ensure greater accountability would be a good first step, but it is far from the only change needed. The saga also reflects South Carolina’s outdated and weak mining laws and regulations, which are long overdue for a new look. We’ve already urged lawmakers to rethink and update the state’s approach to regulating mining activity, and we generally support a bill introduced earlier this year that would ban new mining operations at less than 3 km from any park, reserve, green space or other. protected natural area owned or managed by federal, state or local public entities. Such a ban would have nullified Awendaw’s plan to extract sand for a new park, which would have been too close to Francis Marion National Forest and Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.
There is no doubt that the growing value of earth and sand mining has collided with the growth of South Carolina and the desire of all of its residents, longtime and new, to prevent exploitation. mining to affect their quality of life. The status quo gives too little voice to neighboring residents too late in the process, and even when there is a problem, law enforcement often amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist.
Mr. Summey’s operation continuously violated state regulations while working at Awendaw; he mined beyond his originally authorized 5 acres. The State Department of Health and Environmental Control ordered him to stop working, but he continued. As Mr. Bartelme discovered, this mine fits into a larger pattern of many mines that have broken state rules – another reason to rewrite those rules to make violators pay.
But none of these weaknesses in state laws should let the City of Awendaw or the County of Charleston get away with it. Awendaw is expected to continue his legal efforts to get better accounting on whether Mr Summey, a former county council chairman who now heads the county aviation authority, has held his end of their bargain. But if the city had drafted a better contract to begin with, it could have stayed in the loop while Mr Summey’s contractors mined the sand instead of later asking the city administrator to advocate for updates. Mining stopped in 2019, but the city has yet to receive truck counts or other documents on work on its land. The $ 150,000 in payments the city has received is nowhere near the cost of developing a park, and the city has returned to the drawing board to come up with a new master plan.
Meanwhile, this Awendaw incident is also a big black eye on Charleston County’s otherwise successful Greenbelt program. It’s worth County Council members asking if this program needs more guarantees to make sure the money is doing what it is supposed to do. “What we have now is a destroyed hole in the middle of the Francis Marion Forest,” says Jason Crowley of the Coastal Conservation League. “Charleston County donated money to protect this land, and it was allowed to be absolutely devastated.”
Although it is common to say that success has several fathers, failure often has it too. We need to learn from these failures so that we don’t dig ourselves into another hole.