Charleston City Council unanimously voted to audit Mayor John Tecklenburg’s expenses after concerns about policy violations surfaced at the end of a four-hour-long meeting Tuesday night.
The discussion, originally scheduled to take place during a private executive session, was requested by Councilman Harry Griffin, a candidate for mayor who hinted at Tuesday’s line of questioning in a cryptic Facebook post about “misused city funds” over the weekend.
Griffin first focused on a batch of double-sided business cards.
On the cards, the mayor’s name and contact information are printed on one side, while the opposite side lists information for the mayor’s wife, Sandy. She’s labeled as the “First Lady” under the city seal.
“After looking into this matter, I wanted to find out who paid for this card. My initial concerns are, number one, is she a city employee or a city official?” Griffin asked. “This has gone unnoticed and swept under the rug. We are giving Ms. Tecklenburg some credibility.”
Griffin represents District 10, which covers parts of West Ashley.
The councilman called for an audit of the mayor’s office.
Before addressing Griffin’s questions, Tecklenburg handed each member of Council one of the business cards in question.
The mayor took a somber tone as he read passages from both the Old Testament and New Testament, cited his wife’s contributions to local nonprofit and advocacy organizations, and described, at length, her commitment to his administration.
“She’d often give out my card and write her name on the back of it and put her phone number and email address to other individuals as well, because some folks, I don’t know if they’d be intimidated to call on the mayor,” he explained. “I authorized it. I thought it was a good idea.”
City lawyer Susan Herdina said the issue did not appear illegal or unethical, partly because the cards do not misrepresent the first lady.
“I could not locate any kind of statute or law or ordinance that prohibited what the mayor has talked about here, which is printing her name on the back of a business card,” she said.
The two-sided cards were first ordered in March 2017, according to city spokeswoman Chloe Field. An order of 500 double-sided cards costs about $10 more than an order of one-sided cards, Field said.
Councilman Gary White, who is also running for mayor, asked Tecklenburg whether his wife has ever driven his city-issued 2016 Ford Escape. Tecklenburg said she has.
“In the city’s handbook, the second sentence in the first paragraph says only authorized personnel may operate the vehicle,” White said. “The question was, ‘What’s an authorized personnel?’ And the answer is an employee.”
White also brought up rumors that the mayor had booked flights for his wife using city resources. Tecklenburg said he has always paid for his wife’s travel expenses when she accompanies him on trips, and added that there are city-related expenses that he does not ask to be reimbursed for.
“The fact that we have, in just a very brief 48 hours, identified three policy violations, to me, is a grave concern,” White said.
“Based upon my being a manager, and if I was confronted with this, I would go specifically with the provisions of the employee handbook, because you do report to Council, and I’ll leave it at that,” said Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, who has backed White in his mayoral bid.
Griffin suggested that the mayor’s marriage was getting in the way of city business.
“She was not elected to serve, she’s not a city employee, and you have, for some reason, a problem separating work and your personal life, so I would ask my fellow council members to support this audit,” he said.
Councilman Keith Waring took the opportunity to bring up a separate issue: the approval of pay raises, some in excess of 20 percent, for certain city employees close to the mayor’s office.
“Some of the most compensated people in the city are getting the highest raises,” White added.
Councilman Peter Shahid was the only member who questioned the need to scrutinize the mayor’s use of city funds at Tuesday’s meeting.
“If it’s not illegal or unethical, what is the justification for an audit?” Shahid asked in an interview with the City Paper on Thursday afternoon. “Is it bolstered by the fact that he let his wife drive? That’s a handbook policy violation. Does that justify an audit?”
All members of Council, including Tecklenburg, voted in favor of the audit.
As the mayor wrapped things up by reading a letter sent to his wife from a member of the community, some council members stood up and began packing their things in preparation for a closed-door session in a nearby room.
Discussion of expenses begins at about 4:00:00:
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