Tuesday, August 1, 2006

The Dirt on City Hall


A months-old stain remains on the first row seat in the council chambers at City Hall. City Paper reporter Corey Hutchins investigates the cause of it, illustrating the economic mess of city government on the smallest level

By Corey Hutchins

By any means it should have been a typical public meeting held July 19 in the City Hall council chambers attended on sheer accident by a City Paper reporter.

That night, members of the community stood up against USC and Department of Health and Environmental Control officials concerning a new energy plant being built off South Main Street.

Like many public meetings in many city halls, there was the aggressive attendee going bonkers and the dazed and fumbling spokesman.

And just like many meetings at many city halls, irate residents lobbed questions like hand grenades at public officials who shuffled papers and nervously looked at each other for help. It was there, that night, like so many nights, a small battle was won and lost over the turf of our community, where those in power took the shots and fired back. Sometimes they’d take a hit hard and falter, sometimes they would dodge a bullet or put up smokescreens and sometimes they would shrug, roll over and play dead. “No comment.”

In the end it was not a question about air pollution or the quality of life in the City of Columbia that turned out making for the most sensational copy.

In the end, it was a simple stain noticed on one of the council chamber seats that would eventually lead to a full-blown, weeks-long investigation by this publication.

What follows is a bizarre story involving a situation that may stain the hallowed council chambers on the public record forever. These are actual events that occurred between the months of April and July in the year 2006 in the building at 1737 Main Street we call City Hall.

At a little after 8 p.m., the evening of Tuesday, July 19, USC journalism student Christopher Aleman walked through the muggy summer heat up a Main Street sidewalk, accompanying a City Paper reporter on his way to City Hall.

After a public meeting involving USC, DHEC and neighborhood groups had ended, Aleman, 20, would later point out a mysterious stain on the council chamber’s first row pew adjacent to where he was sitting.

“I just wonder how that got there,” he said, testing it for wetness and eyeing it thoroughly. “Dry as a bone, but it looks like an old piss stain to me.” The stain, which still appears on the seat in question, is approximately 17 inches in length and 10 inches in width at its widest points. It is often the seat where local reporters, politicians and city officials do business.

While the rest of the seat cushion’s fabric is solid blue, the stain has deepened the color of the affected area.

If looked at one way, the stain can resemble a naked man’s lower torso, bent forward, with a penis partially encased in a condom dangling over the edge. If looked at the opposite way, the stain almost perfectly resembles the profile of a stoic Easter Islander’s face with a ponytail, or the head an ancient Spartan.

After the meeting, when asked to comment on what she thought may have caused the particular stain, DHEC’s air bureau chief, Myra Reese, did not appear in the mood to answer. District Three Councilwoman Anne M. Sinclair was also present at the meeting but was unavailable for comment.

It would take several days until the curious stain casually pointed out by the young journalism student would be positively identified. After written requests made to Columbia City Council members and city officials, the source of the stain was finally confirmed. Following a July 26 council meeting where residents complained about everything from the city’s water and sewer problem to the construction on Main and Harden streets, at-large Councilman Daniel Rickenmann told City Paper the stain occurred when Columbia Star business editor, John Temple Ligon, spilled a cup of coffee. When asked the date of the alleged spill, Rickenmann replied via a Blackberry wireless handheld device at 3:40 p.m., “It has been Awhile…” (sic). Less than an hour later, Ligon confirmed the allegation. “Quite honestly, I believe it was a cup of coffee,” he said over the telephone. “I reached over and the damn thing spilled across the seat.”

Ligon also said it had been a “few months” since the accident happened, though he couldn’t remember the exact date and said he apologized about it to the city council. In an archived Columbia Star city council meeting report obtained by City Paper dated April 19, Ligon himself recounted spilling a drink the week before.

“The assumption the spill would dry

“The assumption the spill would dry unoticed was wrong”- Temple Ligon

unnoticed was wrong,” Ligon wrote. He also wrote that he presented a $100 check to the city’s interim chief financial officer in order to pay for upholstery shampoo. In a private e-mail, Ligon wrote, “there was nothing specific on the memo line,” regarding where the money to the city was supposed to go.

A copy of the PamettoCitizens Federal Credit Union check Ligon wrote out to the City of Columbia, however, shows the memo line reading it was for “Cushion Clean-up.” Ligon also said the gesture of the $100 was for the city to hold the check until a final tab on the clean up could be confirmed. He said he expected it to actually be more than $100 and said he doubted the city has even cashed the check. checkligon

A portion of Ligon’s e-mail exactly: (In regards to the city dispersing his check to get the stain cleaned) “…to fully handle the cost as a separate and identified item, the city shouldn’t go through their own labor and equipment available. That’s too cumbersome and too difficult to account for all the overhead. It could get embarrassing. Maybe they’re waiting for me to do it, but I never heard any more on it.”

Ligon further went on to say he would probably call Stanley Steamer and oversee the clean up himself. He also said he would pay the outside contractor personally.

“The city can then return or tear up the earlier check,” he said. Recently hired City of Columbia Chief Financial Officer Lisa Rolan, who has only been in Columbia seven weeks, said the interim CFO at the time of the spill, the person who would have originally handled Ligon’s check, would have been a man named G.C. Robinett. During a July 28 telephone call between City Paper and Rolan, Robinett could be heard in the background. When asked to confirm it was Robinett’s voice, he said “keep talking, I’m here.” Robinett confirmed that he remembered getting the $100 check from Ligon in early April. And where did that money go?

“It went into the general fund,” he said.

Rolan said any money going into the general fund is budgeted for distribution each year. She said the city would wait until the bill came for the upholstery cleaning and the money would be taken out of the fund in order to pay for it.

“So y’all are [going to] do a…story on the city as to why we haven’t used the hundred dollars yet to clean it?” she asked during a meeting between City Paper, herself and G.C. Robinett held on the fourth floor of Washington Square, July 28.

While Robinett said he was there only because he was curious as to why this publication requested a copy of the $100 check from Temple Ligon, Rolan said a source in City Hall had told her that the ball had already begun rolling to get the stain cleaned up.

“I [talked] to someone about what was going on with this stain, because I didn’t know anything about this and have learned that we’re in the process of cleaning it and possibly reupholstering the cushions,” she said. “That is their recommendation because of the type of the stain. It’s not like we’re not following through with this… we are.”

Rolan also said her City Hall source told her information has already been formally provided and submitted to getting the stain cleaned up. City Hall’s night custodian, who only identified himself as “David,” said he was a private contractor and not responsible for the cleanup of rugs, carpets or upholstery in the building and did not seem to be aware of the stain.

“You’d have to speak to public service about that,” he said. “They have a crew that comes to do the shampooing, for carpets and stuff.”

Officials at the City of Columbia Employment Office were unavailable for comment by press time.

Though it still remains unconfirmed how long it will take before the stain is cleaned in the council chambers, how much it will cost, and if Ligon will be getting a refund from the city, Councilwoman Tameika Issac Devine said she believed plans were in the works to get the stain on the pew cleaned.

“… And if that doesn’t work then it will be replaced,” she said.

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