SWANSEA — A small Lexington County city is embroiled in a state investigation involving the mayor, has monetary audits exhibiting problematic accounting practices and put up roadblocks to transparency that make it tough for residents to observe public enterprise.
On prime of that, authorities officers within the city of Swansea are divided between longer-tenured members of its policy-making city council and relative newcomers who see a necessity for a change in the established order.
The rift has been marked by allegations of mismanaged funds, a lawsuit over entry to public info and public sniping that points raised by White council members are rooted in racial bias in opposition to a Black mayor.
The city’s roughly 900 residents would possibly discover the entire saga tough to observe, as public assembly agendas and assembly minutes that element vital selections like proposed tax hikes aren’t available.
Questions on spending
The city of Swansea and its mayor, Jerald Sanders, are a part of a probe by the State Legislation Enforcement Division, Swansea council members Michael Luongo and Doris Simmons advised The Publish and Courier.
Sanders has moved round massive sums of cash with out the council’s authorization, lower a city examine to his personal charitable group and resisted requests from Luongo and Simmons for monetary data, they allege.
SLED is investigating a case involving Sanders, company spokesman Tommy Crosby confirmed. He declined to say extra, citing an ongoing case.
The Lawyer Common’s Workplace is working with SLED because it does many instances, however there have been no expenses and subsequently nothing for the prosecuting company to touch upon, spokesman Robert Kittle mentioned.
Reached by cellphone July 8, Sanders declined to answer the allegations.
“No matter Luongo’s bought going, Luongo’s bought going. I don’t pay any consideration to that man,” Sanders mentioned. “Disregard him.”
Linda Butler, who has been on council for greater than 30 years, mentioned she absolutely helps Sanders and is aware of he did not do mistaken. “I stand by the mayor one hundred pc,” Butler mentioned.
Sanders has been Swansea’s mayor since 2018, elected in 2017 after 9 years on the council.
He unseated longtime Mayor Ray Spires, who was the topic of earlier probes of economic mismanagement, based on a number of information stories, and has since run unsuccessfully to return to council.
The SLED investigation and questions on funds had been first reported by The Lexington Ledger.
Luongo mentioned he and Simmons, an accountant, present in Could 2020 that Sanders had given $2,950 of city cash to a non-public charitable group the mayor oversees.
SLED started probing the city’s funds sooner or later after that, and its inquiry has included years of city monetary data, Luongo mentioned. State investigators lately cleared council members to talk publicly in regards to the case, Luongo mentioned.
Within the spring 2020, Luongo and Simmons mentioned the mayor moved $167,000 of the city’s cash from a particular utilities fund to the overall working account with out council approval, Simmons and Luongo mentioned. The 2 imagine Sanders moved the city’s cash to cowl deficits on the finances.
Luongo mentioned the mayor and city clerk ignored his query when requested in regards to the switch throughout a digital assembly. He mentioned a city legal professional pledged he would analysis the city guidelines associated to shifting the cash however that Luongo by no means heard again.
Butler mentioned she is unaware of the mayor shifting this cash — or any city cash larger than his allowed $5,000 — with out asking the city council for permission.
Council is behind on passing its subsequent annual finances as was required by July 1 and should reconcile a $72,000 deficit, Luongo mentioned primarily based on what city council was advised in a particular assembly July 6.
It is unclear who or what’s accountable for the deficit, however balancing the books is not a brand new concern for city leaders.
When The Publish and Courier requested for a replica of city council assembly minutes and audit stories, a city worker advised a reporter to submit an open data request. The paperwork are referenced on a lately revamped city web site however weren’t accessible as of July 9.
Luongo offered The Publish and Courier with audit stories from 2017 to 2020. These stories confirmed that city accounting duties haven’t been correctly organized, resulting in potential oversight points and issues that wouldn’t be caught in a well timed method.
A 2017 audit decided the city was not maintaining correct monetary data and will rent an skilled accountant. A 2019 report famous the difficulty had been addressed.
The city had not correctly separated accounting duties between 2003 and 2016, with the identical individual serving as cashier and dealing with accounts receivable data and receipt, resulting in potential oversight points and issues that wouldn’t be caught in a well timed method, a 2018 audit discovered.
What’s extra is that at the very least three completely different city workplaces wrote checks, a 2019 report discovered. The problem might result in the potential for an worker utilizing city cash with out permission, which might solely be discoverable by an audit, the report mentioned. A 2020 report mentioned the earlier yr’s findings had been addressed and extra personnel had been employed.
Funds aren’t recorded in a central ledger, the 2019 report discovered, making year-end accounting tough. An auditor advisable the city restrict the quantity of people that write checks and that checks require two signatures.
A 2020 report mentioned the earlier yr’s findings had been addressed and extra personnel had been employed.
Amid the SLED investigation and questions over the city’s monetary administration, Sanders has not sat idly.
He presided over a particular city assembly July 6, the place he proposed a property tax enhance and a hospitality tax, Simmons and Luongo mentioned. He additionally proposed elevating the quantity the mayor can spend with out council’s approval from $5,000 to $20,000, which might give the mayor larger management over the city’s funds.
A proper to know
Those that didn’t attend the assembly the tax will increase and increasing the mayor’s spending means might discover it tough to be taught what selections had been made.
Swansea’s city web site has been down since February 2021, Luongo mentioned. A submit in town’s Fb web page July 3 mentioned the brand new web site had been accomplished and thanked guests for his or her endurance.
As of July 9, hyperlinks to fundamental info reminiscent of assembly agendas, minutes and monetary audits had been nonetheless damaged and directed guests to an error web page.
Luongo mentioned he thinks the taxes handed the primary studying, however with out the general public paperwork, The Publish and Courier was unable to verify the standing of the taxes or the proposal to increase the mayor’s spending energy.
Sanders and city officers have refused to supply common monetary stories requested by Luongo and Simmons, the council members mentioned.
Luongo mentioned he’s locked out of city corridor, and has solely been allowed into the constructing as soon as, in August 2019, to take heed to a recording of a council assembly with the mayor and city clerk current, he mentioned. Council conferences usually happen subsequent door within the courtroom room inside the police division.
“As a council member, the entrance door (to city corridor) ought to at all times be open,” Luongo mentioned. “If I need to have a look at the checkbook, I ought to have the ability to have a look at the checkbook. If I need to go have a look at the decision e-book, or the ordinance e-book, or something that transpires in that city, I ought to have the identical entry because the mayor has. I ought to have the mixture lock. I haven’t got that.”
Simmons and her legal professional, Jacque Moore, sued the city in Could 2020 over entry to data. Due to this, Simmons mentioned she was allowed to enter city corridor twice on the finish of 2020, for about two hours, to have a look at the city’s checks.
Within the courtroom papers, Simmons mentioned the city didn’t flip over cancelled checks and different monetary paperwork she had requested beneath the State Freedom of Data Act and that the city had violated state regulation.
She requested the courtroom to seek out that she has the correct to city monetary data.
She additionally requested the courtroom to acknowledge that council members have equal energy beneath Swansea’s type of authorities and that she ought to have the ability to have objects positioned on assembly agendas.
The city denied the claims in a response from Joseph Dickey, a lawyer who data present represents the city. The case is scheduled for a jury trial the week of July 19, courtroom data present.
Between June 18 and June 22 this yr, Simmons mentioned Moore unsuccessfully tried to serve the mayor and the clerk treasurer a subpoena for them to current all monetary data since 2018 as a part of the swimsuit.
“Our city has been a sufferer to deprave authorities for therefore lengthy,” Simmons mentioned. “We’ve got been struggling attempting to get issues again the way in which they need to be.”
Butler mentioned she has by no means tried to get extra monetary info apart from what the mayor offers in conferences.
“They’re simply on a hunt,” Butler mentioned of Luongo and Simmons. “And perhaps they know one thing that I do not know. No matter they’re planning for, I will be glad once they do discover it, so that each one this craziness can cease.”
Dickey obtained the subpoena, Simmons mentioned.
Dickey declined to additional remark, citing the pending litigation.
A divided council
The five-member city council is split over these monetary questions.
Butler, a Sanders supporter, believes Luongo and Simmons are combating to show greater than mismanaged funds on the mayor’s half.
“I really feel like some individuals, Mr. Luongo and Ms. Simmons, have a problem working beneath a Black chief,” Butler mentioned. “I actually really feel that.”
Sanders, Butler and Councilman Woodrow Davis are Black, whereas Luongo and Simmons are White. This make-up of the city council displays the make-up of the city inhabitants, of which about two-thirds of persons are Black, based on the Census Bureau.
Luongo and Simmons each denied that race has something to do with their issues and mentioned Swansea’s points are about proper and mistaken; not Black or White.
“Proper is correct; mistaken is mistaken. Coloration has nothing to do with this example,” Simmons mentioned.
Whatever the sources behind Swansea’s predicament, Luongo, Simmons and Butler all mentioned they need what’s finest for the city.
“Up to now, we’ve not been capable of do something, as a result of we’re at all times bickering over points,” Butler mentioned. “If we might all simply get collectively and work collectively, Swansea can be a greater place.