Florence leaders claim no wrongdoing in Smoke Free lobbying case

Officials and volunteers with anti-smoking movement blame DHEC for poorly run campaign, while Florence City Council members say they did no wrong.

By JOHN SWEENEY    June 12, 2013


FLORENCE, SC – Former officials with Smoke Free Florence are saying they and members of the Florence City Council did nothing wrong during a campaign to pass a city wide smoking ordinance two years ago and are blaming a state agency’s heavy handedness for raising legal red flags.

“We don’t know if we still know the whole story or if we still know the truth about what happened,” said Clyde Nance, director of preventative services at Circle Park Behavioral Health Services.

Nance and Richard Sale, chairman of the Florence County Coalition for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention, spoke out Monday in reaction to a story in the Morning News that ran Saturday regarding a report issued by the government watchdog group Cause of Action (CoA) that showed Smoke Free Florence illegally lobbied members of the Florence City Council to pass a smoking ordinance in 2011.

A separate report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office confirmed CoA’s findings and required the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control pay back $247.79 in funds deemed misused and required some staff members to attend additional ethics training.

The discrepancies came to light after local members of Circle Park and Smoke Free raised concerns over various practices by DHEC officials, including a request by DHEC to alter Smoke Free Florence meeting minutes so as not to show employees of the state agency was present during a meeting.

Nance and Sale said that was just one example of an unusual and often unsettling relationship with the state agency that was anything but efficient.

“It was such a strange partnership,” Nance said. “It was so different from anything that we’d ever done. It was so separated from the community and the state level.”

Sale, who served as chairman of Smoke Free Florence during its operation, has been involved with the Florence County Coalition since its inception more than 20 years ago. He said he’s never seen a project run the way that DHEC attempted to run the Smoke Free Florence campaign.

“I think it’s because they wanted to run it at the state level,” he said. “It was like they gave us the grant but they wanted to run it.”

Smoke Free Florence received $2.1 million of a $6 million grant made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The federal grant money was designated to educating youth to the dangers of smoking, assisting municipalities and school districts in enacting “smoke-free and tobacco-free policies,” and to offer health services dedicated toward helping smokers quit. The group utilized entities like Circle Park for that last piece, forming the group “Smoke Free Florence,” which no longer exists since the grant funding ran out .

“I was very proud of the coalition,” Sale said.

Sale and Nance aren’t the only ones bothered by the fact local individuals affiliated with Smoke Free Florence are no being mentioned in the same sentence as officials with DHEC who committed the violations.

Florence City Council members Buddy Brand, Glynn Willis and Octavia Williams-Blake said that since the initial story ran over the weekend they had received calls from family members and constituents asking if they did anything illegal.

All three council members said on Monday they were proud of the work they had down to tailor a smoking ordinance that fit the community. That ordinance include major changes from the original proposal DHEC proposed through Smoke Free Florence that would have had businesses losing their license if someone was caught smoking on their property. The new ordinance was more lenient, and according to Nance and Sale frustrated DHEC because it didn’t follow the “cookie cutter” document DHEC proposed.

Neither the report from CoA or the U.S. Government Accountability Office found local officials guilty of wrong doing, but did find fault with DHEC and forced the agency to pay a fine of $247.79 and required two employees receive additional training.

Sale said both the coalition and local officials approached the ordinance the right way, having debate and some give and take before a final decision was reached. Any notion that local individuals did something wrong, he said, was just not true.

Initially following the CoA report, DHEC issued a statement saying it had complied with the findings of the accountability office and considered the matter resolved.

A spokesperson for DHEC said Wednesday the agency had no additional comment.

For Nance, the incident has served as a lesson that the next time Circle Park or the coalition works with DHEC, they will be more careful in how they deal with their state partner.

“I think that the coalition will continue to take a look at their partnerships as they always have done and try to ensure that our partners will conduct themselves with the integrity and honesty and transparency that we do in the efforts that we have,” Nance said.

“The coalition holds itself to a pretty high standard and I think what we will look at in the future is try to make sure that anybody we partners with holds (themselves) to the same standard.”