A South Carolina State University trustee claims the inauguration of President Thomas Elzey cost at least $100,000, but the university says it doesn’t have a final accounting.
Trustee Anthony Grant said that a report he received about inauguration expenditures was incomplete.
“We spent upwards of $100,000 on the inauguration and we have an austerity program,” he said during Tuesday’s board meeting. But the report didn’t include food or personnel costs, according to Grant.
“As a trustee, I’ve raised concerns about austerity in the past – a number of us – in connection with the inauguration, and this fell on deaf ears,” he said.
Trustees approved a motion by a vote of 8-2 asking for a report on all expenses related to Elzey’s recent inauguration. Trustees Cathy Novinger and Pearl Ascue voted no and Bob Waldrep abstained.
The Times and Democrat asked for a copy of the report, but there is no document related to the inauguration, said Sonja Bennett, vice president for external affairs and communications.
“We do not have final expenses tally,” she said. “I’m not sure where Mr. Grant got the $100,000 figure.”
Bennett said one of the reasons the inauguration was held during Founder’s Week was to make it more cost efficient.
“It was better to do all at once, than to have two separate events,” she said.
It is unclear whether the other events held during Founder’s Week, including the First Lady’s Scholarship Luncheon and the Gala, as well as the March 1 inauguration, were included in the $100,000 cited by Grant.
The discussion about university expenses comes as the university is asking lawmakers for $13.6 million to meet operating expenses through June. Elzey has reported that some vendor bills are past due for 90 days or more.
The board is currently planning its annual retreat which, in previous years, has been held in cities across the state with the university footing the bill.
Novinger suggested cutting the normally two- or three-day conference to one day and offered the use of her office to the board free of charge.
It’s large enough and offers facilities to meet the needs of the entire board, she said.
“I’m just opposed to spending money at this point that we don’t have to spend,” she said. “I would also suggest that our board meetings here be timely so that people who travel so far don’t have to spend the night.”
The university’s austerity plan includes the board, Novinger said.
“For every penny we spend, we’ve got accountability just like Dr. Elzey does and everybody else,” she said. “This money could be spent elsewhere.”
Board Chairman Dr. William Small thanked Novinger for the offer.
“I certainly appreciate the economics of our intent to do this,” he said. “However, my position is the board needs what it needs.
“The problem is not the overnight cost. The problem is getting the business done.”
Trustee Dr. John Corbitt said he didn’t want to be rushed during the retreat.
“We all knew when we got elected we come here to do a job,” he said. “I’m not coming out here to just rubber stamp stuff. I want to have a discussion. I won’t be pushed or shoved.”
Grant said he thinks the retreat should be at least a day and a half. He questioned why there was money for an inauguration, but not the board retreat.
“If we can find dollars for an inauguration, we can find dollars for a retreat,” he said.
Following the public part of the meeting, trustees went into closed session to discuss personnel matters as listed on the agenda.
An issue entitled “Mid-Year Evaluation” was scheduled to be discussed in open session, but trustees voted to move it into closed session.
Small said the open-session matter dealt with clarification of the process of evaluating the president. The evaluation itself was to take place in executive session.
However, the president asked that the entire matter be moved into closed session and the board approved his request, Small said.
However, Grant said that trustees should hold an open discussion about the process.
“The president works for a state institution. The process is public and open except for the content,” he said. “We can talk about process without talking about content and that, in my opinion, is an open session discussion.”
Bennett later told The T&D later that the evaluation has not taken place. Trustees were talking about the process that was developed last summer by the board and the president.
It was then sent to the Agency Head Salary Commission for approval, Bennett said.
S.C. State General Counsel Craig Burgess said he had, “no comment on what actually was discussed in executive session other than it was a personnel issue related to president’s mid-year evaluation.”
Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said that the taxpayers have a right to know how leaders are evaluated. Discussing evaluation criteria is not a personnel matter that can be discussed in closed session.
“It’s a policy matter, not a personnel matter,” he said. “It’s a very suspect use of executive session.”
Trustees also met with a group of students to address a discipline issue that could lead to legal ramifications regarding the disciplinary matter, according to Burgess.
“The students were permitted to address the board in executive session because it involved a student disciplinary matter, which is expressly exempted from the open meeting requirement,” Burgess said.