An at-large Columbia City Council candidate was behind thousands of dollars on her city loan last month

Updated: Nov. 3, 2023 at 6:00 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - In March 2022, the City of Columbia gave Uncle Willie’s Grocery Store, owned by Christa Williams, a $76,000 loan to help open up shop.

By October 2023, city minutes show Williams was $6,910.26 behind on her loan repayments, was coming back to the city to restructure it, was running for the open At-Large Columbia City Council seat and was four months removed from spending $1,999 of her personal funds on her own campaign.

If Williams wins in the Nov. 7 election, she’d be on the body that appoints members to the committee which gave her business that loan.

Williams declined an interview request with WIS. She texted that Columbia “need representatives on council that understand the needs of small local businesses”.

The loan

City records show that on March 2, 2022, the City of Columbia Commercial Revolving Loan Fund (CRLF) Committee approved the requested $76,000 to the store “for equipment, inventory, upfit and startup cost”.

doc 1 by Marcus Flowers on Scribd

The loan would be repaid at $987.18 monthly over five years, with a lump repayment of $23,087.23 due at the loan’s maturity.

The committee minutes do not give any detail on the committee’s decision-making process or discussion before it went into executive session.

The Columbia City Council appoints the seven members of the CRLF Committee to two-year terms. Councilmembers serve four-year terms.

Those committee members have the final say on loans.

The stated purpose of the committee is to drive job growth, foster innovation and attract private investment in the city.

The CRLF’s founding ordinance requires city staff to review each application for the ability of the business to repay the loan. It also gives preference to women and minority-owned businesses.

doc 2 by Marcus Flowers on Scribd

The money can be used for construction, expansion, or the purchase of resources needed to run the business.

The ordinance requires staff to make sure each application would “create or retain one job per $35,000 borrowed.”

Williams signed a promissory note stating she would begin the $987.18 payments on July 1, 2022, with a 5 percent late charge (an extra $49.36) if the payments weren’t received within 10 days from the first of each month.

Williams repayment records show she consistently paid more than the $987.18 required until March 2023. Her monthly payments dropped off to $508 and never rebounded back to $987.18.

In June 2023, she donated $1,999 across two donations to her city council campaign and in August 2023 she filed to run for the seat.

The records show her Sept. 11, 2023, payment came in at $308.

City records show the principal of the loan was $69,320.67 and she was $6,910.26 in arrears by Oct. 25, 2023.

doc 3 by Marcus Flowers on Scribd

The record states her last payment came in May 2023, but her repayment history shows payments until September.

The records show she requested the number of payments be extended to pay off the money arrears, that the payments be reduced to $400 per month until Oct. 31, 2024, and the monthly due date be changed to the 20th of each month.

The records state she attributed “the hardship” to “still trying to recover from the pandemic.” Her original application touted the economic stability of the grocery store.

The committee approved the restructuring. The minutes do not show any discussion once out of executive session.

If Williams wins, she’d be on the council that picks the committee

The CRLF’s founding ordinance requires the Columbia City Council to appoint committee members. It also requires the CRLF Committee to create a semi-annual report to the council. It only lists “failure to disclose a conflict of interest” as a means for committee removal.

If Williams wins the at-large election on Tuesday, she’d face questions of abstention in the committee appointment process.

Columbia’s ordinances state that councilmembers shall vote on every question, except when required to abstain from voting by state law.

It reads in part:

All conflicts should be stated for the record and the member shall submit a completed Statement of Potential Conflict. Any member of council who declares a conflict and abstains from voting on any matter shall remain present in the room during discussions and voting.

State law reads in part:

No public official… may make, participate in making, or in any way attempt to use his office… to influence a governmental decision in which he, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated has an economic interest.

Williams did not respond to a WIS question on whether she would abstain from voting on CRLF matters.

The CRLF’s founding ordinance does address conflicts of interest but does not address a scenario where an elected leader takes out a loan.

It does state however that “City officials…may not receive any direct or indirect financial or personal benefits in connection with the approval and awarding of a loan…”

It does allow city employees to receive a loan.

The CRLF falls under the Columbia Office of Business Opportunities (OBO).

The city’s press office said OBO Director Ayesha Driggers was not available for comment.

Committee members Kathleen Abraham and Columbia Community Development Director Felicia Kilgore motion to approve Williams’ restructuring. Abraham did not return a request for comment.

The city’s press office did not make Kilgore available.

Williams is running against businessman Jesse Bullard and attorney Tyler Bailey for the seat.

Bullard declined to comment. Bailey said voters should consider Williams’s loan history.

“I think it’s an issue voters should consider, especially because we’re going to be charged with managing the purse of the city,” he said.

He said he cannot comment on any ethics implication if she would win.

The S.C. Ethics Commission declined to comment on this story.

Neither Bullard nor Bailey has any loans out with the city.

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