Just now getting to my weekend e-mails, and I see this one from Bob Coble:
I wanted to give you an update from the City County RTA Committee that met at City Hall last Thursday. City Council members include me, EW Cromartie, and Kirkman Finlay. Belinda Gergel also joined us. County Council members include Damon Jeter, Val Hutchinson, and Joyce Dickerson. Chairman Joe McEachern also attended. The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce and other groups also were in attendance. The first meeting had four presentations from staff on a variety of background issues. Joe Cronin of the County gave an excellent overview of how our RTA compares to peer cities. I believe that all the Committee members strongly agree on two fundamental points. First that transit is an essential public service that is critical for those who depend on bus service to get to their job and the doctor; an essential environmental tool to prevent non-attainment status and become a green community; and is vital to continuing economic development. Secondly, that the County and the City have the capacity to provide funding currently and it would be unacceptable not to do so.
Frannie Heizer, as the attorney for the RTA, presented the current legal options for funding. She made the following points: First, a sales tax referendum could not be held until November 2010 (Richland County Council could call the referendum now for 2010). Secondly, Frannie believes that the use of hospitality tax for transit would require a change of state law in the 2009 Legislative Session. The County has asked for an Attorney General’s Opinion to see if hospitality tax could be used now without a change in state law. Thirdly, neither City nor County property tax can be used without a referendum and then property tax would be limited by the cap on milage. Fourth, the mass transit fee by the County and the vehicle registration fee by the City and County are available now (both fees are different legally but to the taxpayer are paid in the same way and the same amount).
When we establish a funding plan, other issues that were discussed included the need for other governments and partners to participate in funding the RTA; doing a comprehensive operations analysis; and changing the RTA organizational structure to have advisory members for those governments that are not providing money to the system.
The next meeting will be Friday November 14th at 9:30 am at the RTA headquarters on Lucius Road. We are inviting three members from the Lexington County Council to participate.
We just remade tomorrow’s op-ed page to share with our readers a piece that I think everyone should have the chance to read (folks who live in the Elmwood area will find it of particular interest), even though it has already been overtaken by events, and could be more so by the time the paper hits your doorstep Thursday morning.
So it is that I go ahead and give it to you here and now. An explanation: We got this piece today, when Salvation Army board chief Michael Beal shared with us the letter he had sent to Columbia City Council. He wrote it before the Midlands Housing Alliance voted NOT to change its plans and move to a site being pushed by some members of the city council. That happened Wednesday afternoon.
What I don’t know at this writing is what the city council will do in light of a) this letter, which tells them that the homeless services that residential neighbor want well away from them isn’t going to move whatever the Alliance does, and b) the vote by the Alliance this afternoon NOT to change its plans.
I’ve heard one thing about the city’s plans: That it plans to discuss the issue behind closed doors tonight. Here’s hoping that the city’s leaders think better of that and deal with this in the open. For my part I’ll find out when I read the paper in the morning; tonight I’ll be watching the presidential debate (assuming I get out of here by that time tonight). When I’m going to finish reading that blasted book so I can write the column that will be the counterpart to the "Barack Like Me" column, I don’t know. But that’s not your problem, is it?
Anyway, here’s the piece from Mr. Beal, adapted from the letter he sent the council:
Killing homeless center won’t move homeless
By MICHAEL M. BEAL Guest Columnist On Wednesday, I sent a letter to Mayor Bob Coble and City Council on behalf of the Columbia Salvation Army Advisory Board to disabuse them of the idea that the homeless are leaving our site at 2025 Main St. If the Midlands Homeless Alliance doesn’t serve them at our current headquarters, we will continue to do so. I share the substance of it here. The Salvation Army has a 100-year history of caring for the homeless in Columbia. We believe the Homeless Alliance’s plan to build a residential homeless transition center at 2025 Main St. complements out mission. The selection of an appropriate location is loaded with emotion. No one wants a homeless facility in their backyard. And yet it must be somewhere. City Council, the Homeless Alliance and the Salvation Army all must make decisions that further their missions. Council will have to determine which homeowners to appease and which to upset (Elmwood Park and Cottontown vs. CanalSide) as well as whether to help facilitate a well-financed and well-considered solution to a problem for the greater good. Council also has a duty to be a good steward of the taxpayers’ money. From an economic standpoint, the Homeless Alliance proposal is clearly the best option. The alliance will have to gauge the feasibility of abandoning the Salvation Army site for a city-sponsored alternative, which raises many questions and jeopardizes some of its financing. The Salvation Army’s goal is to sell the property to the alliance and become a service provider at the new transition center. To be very clear: If lawsuits or red tape kill the pending sale, we will renovate our facility and continue our residential care mission at 2025 Main St. We are informed that much of the financial support garnered by the Homeless Alliance will be lost if the transition center is not built on Main Street. If that occurs, we expect those who had agreed to support the alliance to support us instead, so we can continue to provide shelter and other services. If the new residential facility is built somewhere else, that would undoubtedly influence us, but it would not end utilization of the property for homeless services, including programs with substantial residential components. This is not an either-or issue. The current zoning permits the Salvation Army to use the property for up to 261 residential beds, with full support services. Infinitely. We continue to serve the homeless today even though much of our funding has been diverted to the transition center. If the Homeless Alliance contract is not closed, we will continue to own the property and will continue our mission and ministry of helping the homeless at 2025 Main St. for another 100 years, or until there are no more homeless people who need our assistance. If the Homeless Alliance isn’t able to build its state-of-the-art center, it will further Columbia’s reputation as a dysfunctional city where critical issues are interminably debated, not resolved. While we debate and litigate, little is being done to actually solve the problems of homelessness in Columbia. Homeless people (who are people) continue to sleep on the streets and urinate in citizens’ yards. Another winter will come and go in Columbia, and no answers will be provided. The Miami shelter, which many members of council and this community visited, has a success rate in excess of 60 percent. If the Midlands Homeless Alliance’s plans are approved and we achieve a success rate close to 60 percent, it will not take long to see a noticeable improvement in downtown Columbia. In addition, the lives of the formerly homeless will be changed forever: They will become employed, tax-paying citizens. If it happened in Miami, it can happen here. This is Columbia’s last and best chance to properly address homelessness. The alliance’s project has incredible support in the community. Hundreds showed up at the announcement at the Salvation Army this summer. Churches have pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars, and business and individuals have pledged $5 million to match the Knight Foundation’s incredible gift. The Midlands Business Leadership Group, Knight Foundation, United Way, Central Carolina Community Foundation and the faith-based community have come together in an unprecedented fashion on this singular issue to provide something that Columbia has been lacking for many years — leadership. We hope that council will be part of the solution and help Columbia take the first step toward becoming the great city we all believe it can become.
Mr. Beal chairs the Columbia Salvation Army Advisory Board.
No, not you, if that’s what you call yourself. I’ve got nothing against you. I just don’t like the word. Aside from it being bureaucratese, there’s something … presumptuous about it. As though one can accurately identify certain people as "stakeholders" which implies (but does not necessarily mean, I suppose) that some people are not.
I have this thing about the interconnectedness of all things that bridles at the notion that one can readily identify "stakeholders."
Then again, I suppose there’s a small-R republican part of me that objects to the context in which I usually find the term. I believe in representative democracy, not the direct kind. Barack Obama and other community organizer types are probably a lot more comfortable with the word, and with the concept of including all "stakeholders" (which in a community organizer sense I suppose means everybody who shows up at your meeting) in the decision-making process. Me, I’m all for listening to folks, but at some point a decision has to be made by the folks elected to do so. And often, very often, the correct decision is going to anger "stakeholders." And far, far too often, elected officials nowadays lack the cojones to go ahead and make that decision, because they’re so terrified of the "stakeholders."
Take, for instance, the issue of establishing a comprehensive center to deal with homelessness in metro Columbia. The city proper’s government has repeatedly bollixed up efforts to make this happen, out of fear of a certain sort of "stakeholder" — neighboring residents and business people motivated by the NIMBY principle. Here’s the thing about that: This center would be good for the community as a whole, and would in fact pull homeless people OFF the streets in its immediate area and start dealing with their problems. It needs to go SOMEWHERE, and that somewhere needs to be a place that homeless people can get to.
You may recall that several sites have been rejected over the last couple of years, from the State Hospital property on Bull St. (which would have been perfect for the temporary site that was under consideration), to one right down the road from us (which was fine with us at the newspaper, but OTHER "stakeholders" objected, so it fell apart).
In recent days, the group of citizens that has been busting its collective hump to make this thing happen in SPITE of the city has been moving toward establishing the center at the current Salvation Army site on Main St. Some on city council have been pushing a site down by the canal that you and I can’t actually see from the road (at least I haven’t). Maybe that’s a good site, but there are a couple of problems: The first is that the people who’ve actually been WORKING on the issue have a lot invested in the Main St./Elmwood site. The second is that, while the city council folks pushing the canal site say theirs is better because residential neighbors object to the Main/Elmwood one (true), now that word of it has gotten out, neighbors of the canal site are ready to sue as well (specifically, one big neighbor, the Canalside development). So it’s a wash.
The other day I remarked to Warren and Cindi that what’s needed is for the "stakeholders" OTHER than the neighbors need to get their act together and unite behind a site — something that’s supposed to happen in a meeting at 2:30 p.m. today, in fact — and then deal with the objections of neighbors. Because the objection of neighbors is a constant. It’s a wash. You have to deal with it either way. And the fact that some "stakeholders" are always going to be opposed cannot be allowed to prevent anything from happening.
Too many people who say "stakeholders" a lot think everybody has to be happy with a decision. As long as you’re willing to face the fact that some "stakeholders" will be unhappy even when you do the right thing (and some of them especially if you do the right thing), then by all means, go ahead and use the word.
What, you ask, set me off on this topic? Oh, I was cleaning out my e-mail from recent days, and ran across this, which is really unrelated to my rant about the word:
Oct. 8, 2008
DHEC announces water stakeholder meetings
– As part of an evaluation of the uses and quality of South Carolina’s
S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control will be holding stakeholders
meetings across the state, the agency announced today.
will have an opportunity to share their thoughts on freshwater quality
standards, classifications, and uses, as they relate to recreation," said David
Wilson, chief of DHEC’s Bureau of Water. "We’ll be sharing information and also
will be available to answer questions and concerns….
I’m guessing that since this was a public announcement, "stakeholder" means anybody who shows up, although maybe I’m misunderstanding. Used to be we were "citizens," or "the public." But now we’re "stakeholders," and are we any better off for it? I don’t think so.
Still catching up with e-mail from over the weekend, I ran into this message from Mayor Bob Coble about the city of Columbia’s finances:
I wanted to give you my perspective on the progress the City is making in getting our Finance Department in order. The 2007 CAFRA has been given to our auditor and shows a general fund balance of $24.9 million. That is a net increase over the year before of $1.6 million. Of the $24.9 million, $11 million of that will remain as the City’s “rainy day fund.” $2 million is encumbered and about $12 million is unallocated. Some portion of the unallocated $12 million may be used in future years, if needed, to handle fund balance deficits in accounts like the risk management fund, the TN Development Corporation, the Business Improvement District, a general obligation bond debt service etc. Our accountant, Don Mobely indicated at the retreat that future revenues and transfers from other funds would handle these deficits in future years. The 2007 CAFRA showed $9 million more in revenue and $4.4 million less in expenses than was budgeted. The City is close to correcting problems in the Finance Department. The risk management fund has been corrected for past budgets. City Council will amend the current budget on September 24, 2008 to correct the problem for 2009. Health care costs will appear in each department’s budget. City Council approved a contract in July with Sungard Bi-Tech to correct the problems with our two computer systems, IFAS and Banner that were at the core of the problems with the Finance Department. Reconciliation and financial reports will be given to City Council on a monthly basis in January. We will have income and expense statements in October. Bill Ellis has been hired as the Deputy Finance Director. Two or three more account professionals will be hired by Bill. A new permanent CFO will be hired in January. A CFO Advisory Committee of prominent local CEOs, CFOs and business men and women has been established and has met. This committee will help select the best CFO possible. The internal control weaknesses that were reported in the last management letter will show corrections in the 2009 and 2010 CAFRA. The restructured Finance Department will be responsible for risk management. The City must reduce health care costs and budget for GASB 45, as all governmental entities must do. Towers-Perrin, a nationally recognized, health care consultant, made a presentation at our retreat last week and will make recommendations on September 3rd for changes in our health plan effective July 1, 2009. I believe those changes will bring the City’s plan more in line with other governmental plans but not be a radical departure based on the initial report from Towers-Perrin. GASB 45 will be addressed after those changes have been made because those changes will impact the future liability under GASB 45. Clearly, these financial problems have been embarrassing. They have caused us to plan poorly and react slowly because of a lack of information. These problems are being addressed, and we look forward to having the best Finance Department possible using best practices.
Mayor Bob came by the office this morning to try to sell us on his proposed ordinance to require security measures at apartment complexes. We talked for about 45 minutes. As you know, we have criticized the city in the past for trying to get the federal government to do the city’s job with regard to crime in poor North Columbia neighborhoods. Here’s what we said March 9:
THE STATE POLICE OBLIGATED TO PROTECT ALL CITY NEIGHBORHOODS Published on: 03/09/2008 Section: EDITORIAL Edition: FINAL Page: A22 IT MAKES GOOD sense for the owner of troubled Gable Oaks apartments to beef up security, but that doesn’t relieve Columbia police of their duty to adequately patrol and enforce the law at the omplex. City officials seem to believe it’s largely up to the owner of the apartment complex to provide what amounts to basic police protection. They say the onus is on Transom Development, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks, to ensure residents’ safety. Some council members want the federal government to require — and help pay for — security at apartment complexes, such as Gable Oaks, that accept federal housing vouchers. Last week, some S.C. House members got into they act by filing legislation that would offer income tax credits in exchange for providing security at low-income, multifamily housing complexes. Considering the fact that three people have been killed in or near Gable Oaks since December, it’s understandable that residents and city officials are very concerned. It’s perfectly appropriate for Transom to do all it can to provide extra security for its residents. And it should pay for that higher level of service. Transom plans to do just that; it has agreed to hire security guards and to issue residents parking decals. But make no mistake about it, the primary responsibility for protecting residents of Gable Oaks or any other part of the city lies with the city. Gable Oaks is in the city limits, and its tenants are city residents. City residents should be able to expect a certain level and quality of service from the police department. We can’t help but believe that if there was a spike in crime in Shandon or Wales Garden — no matter how minor — the city would aggressively patrol the area, get matters under control and pay more attention going forward. Gable Oaks deserves no less. But the tone and tack city officials have used when discussing Gable Oaks make it seem as if residents are on their own if the owner doesn’t provide maximum protection. That would be unfair and discriminatory. While Gable Oaks is in the spotlight, north Columbia residents have taken this opportunity to express concern that the city neglects their area of town. During a meeting last Monday night, about 50 residents complained of poor police presence, indifferent landlords and a City Council focused more on downtown than north Columbia. There’s no doubt that over the years, the city has paid inadequate attention to certain areas of town, and north Columbia is one of them. While city officials say the owner should police Gable Oaks, some acknowledge that tenants from the complex aren’t necessarily the troublemakers. Visitors and people passing through cause some of the problems. That means those people are passing through — or even coming from — other city neighborhoods. And it’s the city’s responsibility to police all its neighborhoods and ensure people’s safety. By all means, Gable Oaks’ owner should improve security. But city police shouldn’t take that as a sign they don’t have to be vigilant in policing the area. Ultimately, the quality of law enforcement residents in Gable Oaks, or other parts of Columbia, receive will be determined by how committed the city is to help make it safe.
Here are some of the main points that the mayor made to us this morning:
The federal government, since it provides subsidies for housing in these complexes, should require security just as it has architectural requirements.
The feds have refused twice to ge involved, but suggested the city would be within its rights to require lighting, fencing, private security guards and other measures by ordinance — if the rules applied to ALL apartment complexes in the city.
There is some chance the federal position might change with a new administration, but crime-beleaguered residents can’t wait for that.
Whatever the philosophical objections (such as our objection that if the crime were in Shandon, the police would deal with it), there is the very real problem of people being exposed to crime. The city has had real-life success stopping crime in Gable Oaks using the approach he is now proposing to apply to ALL apartments in the city, and there is no good reason not to implement something that works.
One difference between this and crime involving single-family residences is that an apartment complex is a large business being conducted within the city, and is thereby subject to regulation.
Requiring the complexes to provide security is no different from requiring USC to come up with off-duty cops to handle traffic for Williams-Brice Stadium events: If you’re running an enterprise that causes a problem, you deal with the problem.
It’s not appropriate for city police to stay in one such business 24 hours a day, at the neglect of nearby areas.
Private security guards can enforce rules that city police can’t — such as a complex’s own covenants or lease provisions.
Near as I can recall, those were his main points. Maybe I’ll post video from the interview on Saturday Extra this week. (In fact, I’m sure I will unless something better comes up.)
Oh, and by the way — the mayor shrugged off the friction between him and Kirkman Finlay III (below, from a previous edit board meeting) over the issue. When Warren kidded him that "I thought you were about to rip your tie off," from Adam Beam’s report this a.m. "No," said the mayor, "we were hugging and kissing by the time the day was over."
But the mayor got something wrong. He thought, when he saw the ripped-off graphic, that this blog had gone active again. Wrong. It’s still a slacker blog, without a post since June 2007. Or — and here’s another way to look at it — was the graphic not ripped off at all? Is there a connection between the individuals involved in both? I probably should know that. Someone told me once who was behind this site, but I guess it wasn’t important enough to me to remember. Maybe y’all can refresh me.
So for now, I’ll keep that moribund blog at the bottom of the blogroll, where I tend to put the inactives. I suppose I should bump up "Barbecue and Politics," since that former slacker has sprung to new life. And for now, the Pulse will remain where it is. It will be interesting to see how it acts going forward, stripped of its cheesy anonymity.
At the start of this year, when we were about to do our endorsements in the S.C. presidential primaries, I asked the folks downstairs at thestate.com to set us up a page where our current endorsements would reside. As long as we remember to do the right coding on the editorials as we run them, they go to this page, and stay.
It just occurred to me tonight, now that we’ve run a few endorsements in the June 10 primary, to check to see if it’s working. And it is. Here’s the link.
That is, it’s mostly working. For some reason a couple of months back, the pictures that were set up to run with the McCain and Obama endorsements disappeared from the files. I went in and, using my limited understanding of the inner workings of thestate.com, managed to restore the McCain one, but the Obama picture defied my efforts to remove the recently passed expiration date.
Still catching up on e-mail. Here’s another one that came in Wednesday, in which Mayor Bob Coble insists that while Belinda Gergel is his friend, so is Don Tomlin:
Brad, I wanted to add two perspectives on the issues raised in The State this morning. First, while I supported Belinda in the election; we are long term friends (her husband Richard and I worked together in high school); and we agree on many issues; Belinda won because of her history and independence and will not be part of a "faction." Indeed much of her campaign addressed needed changes at City Hall. Secondly, while there are different views in the community and on Council on the direction of the City, I can think of no one I have worked more closely with than Don Tomlin over the past four years. He has played the key role in the Bull Street Neighborhood, the revitalization of Allen University, and at least two new neighborhoods in Columbia. Now that the election is over I will continue to work with all of Council to move Columbia forward. Thanks
Actually, that’s another thing Bob and Belinda have in common. Both dismiss talk of "factions" on city council, as you see in this video:
02 April 2008 Dear Mr. Rickenmann, Congratulations on your re-election to the Columbia City Council. Like me, I am sure that you are very grateful to your many supporters. Although I needed to limit my run for this important office to only a few months and ran a campaign built on small donations and many volunteer hours, I am pleased with the result. Our joint appearances raised many important issues, addressed a number of significant concerns, and challenged voters to consider what priorities they want to see addressed as we look to the future of our great city. At times our conversations were spirited – as they should have been. We disagreed on many matters. And that is as it should be. We owed our constituents our directness, our honesty and our zeal as we challenged each other and offered differing visions for the city. We each presented a unique set of experiences and skills to be applied to Office of City Council Person. While my support grew steadily throughout the campaign from 11 percent in its first days to 42 percent last night, it is clear that a majority of voters considered you worthy of a second term. I hope it is one marked by an overriding concern for the needs of our citizens. I stand ready to be of assistance as you and your fellow council members grapple with how to ensure that every tax dollar is spent carefully with citizens able to access information related to this easily and in a timely manner. I stand ready to be of assistance as you all weigh in on the future development of Five Points especially in regards to the clean up of the recently identified contamination at the Kenny’s site and as you gather all the pertinent information regarding the best use of the property. I stand ready to be of assistance as the Council addresses safety in our city through innovative gang intervention programs, an expansion of the number of police officers on the streets, better pay and benefits for our officers to encourage retention, and the study of the establishment of a police reserve/auxiliary like those in our county and in so many other cities in this state. I believe in local political action as the first step in any national movement toward reform. I will stay actively involved and committed to my city and its people. Call on me if I can be of help. I look forward to continued engagement with you and your fellow Council Members in the years ahead. Respectfully, Cameron Runyan PO Box 1933 • Columbia, SC 29202
Since I haven’t decided what I think about it myself, let me ask you: What do you think of the last-minute attacks in the Columbia City Council at-large race?
Two examples of what I’m talking about: Cameron Runyan holds a press conference to claim that incumbent Daniel Rickenmann had a conflict-of-interest on recent tentative decision to approve a six-story development in Five Points. There was a story about that in the paper the other day.
Then, on Sunday, the above flier shows up on windshields outside Bethel AME Church. (This was reported on in today’s paper.) There is no date on the photo, and little explanatory information. But to describe it as simply as possible, it purports to show Mr. Rickenmann at what has all the marks of a Kappa Alpha fraternity party. But I suppose it could be just about anything. As to whether that’s Mr. Rickenmann, well … all those preppy white boys tend to look alike to me. As I said awhile back, I think Cameron Runyan looks like Daniel Rickenmann, so don’t go by me.
Here’s what today’s news story said:
The fliers showed a picture of Rickenmann at a fraternity party while
he was a student at USC. He and a group of fraternity brothers, some
dressed in Confederate uniforms, are posing in front of a Confederate
battle flag. In the picture, Rickenmann, dressed in a tuxedo, is
toasting the camera with a drink.
Or, you could just look at the picture above.
No one has taken responsibility for the flier — neither Hamas nor the Symbionese Liberation Army has come forward, and Mr. Runyan denies it outright.
Both of these attacks came after we had endorsed Mr. Runyan for the seat, and we had no interest in running anything about them in editorial. We don’t even have an editorial position on the (relative) high-rise in Five Points — I’m at odds with my three associates on that one — much less what role Mr. Rickenmann should or shouldn’t have played in the decision thus far.
As for the "Confederate" picture… even if we had raised it to denounce Mr. Runyan (or whoever distributed it; I don’t know who), it would have focused so much negative attention on Mr. Rickenmann that it would look like we, as Runyan supporters, were piling on. (Add to that our usual reluctance to air any new charges in the last day or two of an election, when it’s too late for the accused to give a fair answer.)
Anyway, it all came out in the end for Mr. Rickenmann, so congratulations to him and his supporters. I just provide this post as a place for y’all to discuss the last-minute stuff.
Just now I finally got caught up with yesterday’s e-mail, and found this message:
Dear Sirs and Madam:
Your editorial today endorsed Runyon, and your
comments are not fair to me, nor to the city. My international background will
bring unique and broader vision and solutions to our City. I’m not motivated by
the zoning issue, but by my urge to contribute and get involved. The city
council should be diversified/open-minded, and not to be self-absorbed and not
to treat the minorities as invisibles.
The most important issues for this campaign
should get our city council think out of the box, but not just to get another
one who thinks alike. To me, all the other candidates talked about the same
issues, and suggested the same remedies.
Lea Walker, President (US) Chinese Culture Center
Ms. Walker (pictured above) is one of the four candidates running for the at-large seat on Columbia City Council. I still hope to get around to posting something from our meeting with her before this thing’s over. If you’ll notice, I haven’t posted anything on our meeting with the guy we endorsed, either. I did put up something from our meeting with Daniel Rickenmann, but it wasn’t nearly as complete as what I’ve done on Brian Boyer and Belinda Gergel.
Unfortunately, those kinds of posts are very time-consuming (I stayed very late doing the Rickenmann and Gergel ones), and when things get busy around here, putting out the editorial pages comes first.
Just saw this e-mail that Joe Azar sent out to his list:
Today The State editorial board endorsed Cameron Runyan over incumbent Daniel Rickenmann. Read it below. From all I can hear and see, Runyan should become our next city councilman. But don’t sit back and wait, forward this to everyone, call all your friends, and make sure to get everyone out to vote Tuesday, April 1. That is the only way to win, so do it!…
Speaking of Mayor Bob, as we were earlier… A few days ago, he sent us an op-ed submission. Then he resent it with an additional byline on it — that of Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine. It was about the recent city council retreat.
Trouble is, we had run a piece from him just days earlier — last Friday, as a matter of fact. And that piece wasn’t long after another one from him. We can’t just turn over the space we have for local guest columns to the mayor every time there’s something he wants to respond to — he’s a very responsive guy. We have space most days for one local, nonstaff column. There’s a lot of competition for that slot, most days. So we have a guideline — no more than one piece for the same person within 30 days. And we had already stretched that rule once for the mayor, since his earlier piece had been on Feb. 20. We couldn’t give him yet another pass and still face all the other folks we’ve said "no" to. We’d made the first exception because he was responding to an editorial that had been critical of the city. We could have made another for the same reason, but chose not to.
Instead, I offered to put it on the blog. Here’s the cover note that came with the most recent version of his latest submission:
In light of today’s editorial I wanted to submit again the op ed from myself and Tameika Isaac Devine. The editorial was based on Adam Beam’s story about our retreat. While the editorial and Adam’s story certainly describe legitimate issues, I believe the op ed addresses one issue that has been corrected. The City Council partly as a result of the study cited in the editorial has set specific goals and a specific strategic action plan to implement those goals. Both the goals and the plan will be on our website after the plan is updated from the comments at the retreat.
The editorial specifically addresses the report and lack of goals when the writer says: "The report, based on interviews with dozens of managers in city government, said the City Council set no vision or goals…" The editorial goes on to say: "Council members told the study commission that the 2001 report was accurate. But they declared things had changed under Mr. Austin. Mayor Bob Coble said he thought members followed state law in terms of how they interact with city employees. But the events at the recent retreat say things have gotten no better. The council remains a major culprit in ensuring the city’s government struggles."
Clearly the main thrust of the editorial is the "interferance" (the writer’s term in the opening paragraph) of City Council and the form of government and not the lack of planning. While City Manager Austin would be the one to say what improvements have been made in how City Council interacts with him, I would note that the lack of formal goal setting and planning has been addressed, I believe in fairness the op ed adds an important perspective on whether the City Council took steps to formally address that criticism (instead of using the State of the City for the last six years as the primary vehicle for setting goals as would be the common practice under a strong mayor form of government). Of course the op ed discusses the major issues that were addressed at the retreat in addition to the one that Adam addressed in his story. As always I appreciate your consideration.
City Council Retreat Friday March 7, 2008 I wanted to give a report on the Columbia City Council Retreat that was held Friday March 7th at the Convention Center. The bulk of the day was spent reviewing the four broad goals that City Council adopted last year. Those goals were: 1. To enhance the quality of life in the City of Columbia for all citizens, customers and visitors. 2. To enhance and protect our natural and built infrastructure. 3. To enhance Columbia’s future role as the flagship municipality in South Carolina through the use of best practices for local government operations. 4. To grow the City’s tax base by facilitating opportunities for citizens and future generations to reach their full economic, social, and cultural potential. Those broad goals are being implemented through Columbia’s Strategic Operational Plan that staff has developed, and that City Council reviewed at the retreat. Both the goals and strategic plan will be on our website www.columbiasc.net. While a number of specific issues were discussed at the retreat, I think four were particularly important. First, City Council affirmed our plan for safety and security in Columbia. We established as our top funding priority, the police and fire retention plan to increase salaries by $2.5 million over a three year period. We reaffirmed our commitment to fund a security camera system and the goal of 375 police officers (an increase of 19 officers). Additionally, we are committed to fighting gang and youth violence with the implementation of the recommendations of our gang assessment. Secondly, we reviewed the progress we are making in correcting the deficiencies in our Finance Department that were outlined in the September 2007 Management Letter. We have retained the Municipal Association of South Carolina to help us establish best practices and online financial reporting. Thirdly, the City has made a real commitment to climate protection. Implementation of our energy audit, which will be released this month, will be a top priority for the coming year. Columbia must do our part to reduce global warming and protect our environment. Fourth, we reviewed the implementation of the disparity study that was adopted by Council in August of 2006. City Council reaffirmed our strong commitment to the study’s implementation and the need for accountability in reaching our goal of economic fairness and inclusion for our diverse community. Columbia City Council established last year our broad goals and the strategic operational plan to implement those goals. This year’s retreat was an important opportunity to review progress and take corrective steps where needed. Columbia is going through the greatest renaissance in our history. Innovista will transform our economy and create high wage jobs. The Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and Hilton Hotel are bringing in tourists and conventions. We are creating new attractions such as EdVenture, the Three Rivers Greenway, and the historic Bethel AME Church Museum. The heart of Columbia, from the Riverfront, Downtown, Five Points, North Columbia, Two Notch Road to Read Street, has been revitalized. Private investment, both residential and commercial, has exploded. We have stronger neighborhoods with more residents, more homeowners, and greater home values in Columbia. We have achieved this growth with a commitment to diversity and inclusion. We have launched a new effort “Together We Can” to improve our public schools through greater community partnerships. This coming year will be an exciting though challenging time. Clear goals and our strategic plan will help us achieve success.
Mayor Bob Coble 3333 Heyward Street Columbia, South Carolina
A few days ago, I was sent this PDF file, whichwas attached to an e-mail that proclaimed, "Belinda Gergel Lies on Ethics Report." The accusation of lying, as near as I can determine, is unsupported, and therefore reprehensible. (The e-mail was forwarded to me by a Brian Boyer supporter who was unable to tell me where it originated.)
What you will see if you call up the document is that it includes scans of a lot of documents, including Belinda Gergel‘s SEC filing that explains that her husband is the president of Gergel, Nickles and Solomon, P.A., but under "Income and Benefits from State and Local Agencies in South Carolina" for the past year, cites only pay that she received for part-time teaching at the College of Charleston.
The implication is that she and/or her husband received income from work that Richard Gergel’s law firm did for the city. Richard Gergel answers the charge this way:
Brad: This document is floating around as part of a smear campaign against Belinda. There is no secret that I have done legal work for the city for many years, just like I have done for many other governmental agencies in S.C. including the Governor, the Supreme Court, the Budget and Control Board, the State Retirement System and the Workers Compensation Commission. When Belinda decided to run, we resolved that I would cease all work for the city once she was elected. I realized last October that I had no outstanding projects with the city and thought it was a good time to cut off any further work on my part. I wrote Council and have done no work for the city since that time. We also arranged that any work done by other members of my firm would be under a legal entity in which I have no financial interest and even with that Belinda would recuse herself from all votes relating to those legal services. Further, the smear states that the firm has paid an "estimated" rate of $300 per hour. Where do they get these things? The firm has never been paid more than $140 per hour for legal work, which is a significant discount from our normal hourly rate. I suspect this is just the beginning of the smear that will come over the next two weeks. Makes you wonder why you would ever seek to run for public office. You live an entire life of honor and integrity and have a bunch of folks hiding behind the anonymity of the internet to smear you. If they have something important to say, why are they insisting on communicating anonymously?
No one has come forward to defend the attack. When they do. I’ll be glad to present you with that argument as well.
A footnote: Richard Gergel does not know exactly where the PDF originated, but he did share with me something he had obtained: "the original FIOA request from a Charleston law firm seeking information on my legal work with the city." Here is a PDF, provided by Mr. Gergel, of that FOI request.
Mr. Gergel notes that:
The letter is dated May 2, 2007 but the fax transmittal of the firm indicates that it was sent May 7, 2007. Belinda began telling people she was considering the race in late April 2007 and the first press mention of her candidacy was May 3, 2007. These guys have been cooking this thing up from the moment she began her candidacy but have apparently been holding the smear back until late, apparently hoping to do it at a time and in a manner that Belinda could not defend herself.
Anybody who has other thoughts to share on this subject — and especially anyone who can add to our knowledge of the document’s origins — this would be the place to share.
By BRAD WARTHEN EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR MY QUOTE of the week — I don’t usually name a quote of the week, but I’ll make an exception — is from Charles T. “Bud” Ferillo: “We will not be outspent.” Bud was speaking in his capacity as campaign consultant to Belinda Gergel, who is seeking the 3rd District Columbia City Council seat being vacated by Anne Sinclair. This will, by all accounts, be the most expensive City Council district race ever in Columbia, with most of it spent by Ms. Gergel and rival Brian Boyer. A third candidate, Reed Swearingen, is running a much lower-key campaign. Mr. Boyer started running a TV ad Wednesday depicting photos of him as a Dreher High School athlete and Army officer serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. In all, he plans to spend $50,000 on television between now and the April 1 election, out of a total campaign budget of $130,000 to $140,000. Belinda Gergel has raised $164,000, and had not intended to use any of it for TV, but that changed this past week — her own campaign commercial started airing early Friday morning. (You can see both ads, plus video from our endorsement interviews with the candidates, on my blog at thestate.com/bradsblog/.) Where does all the money come from? Mr. Boyer’s is replete with the names of local builders and Realtors, including that of Don Tomlin — the candidate’s brother-in-law and president of the homebuilding company of which Mr. Boyer is a vice president. Other names include Kirkman Finlay III and Gayle Averyt, who have been allied with Mr. Tomlin. Ms. Gergel’s rather longer list includes a lot of names long associated with local political activism, such as Joel Lourie, Ed Sellers, Bill Boyd, J. Lewis Cromer, Zoe Nettles, Barbara Moxon … and Bud Ferillo. Those lists play into the conventional wisdom that, despite City Council being nonpartisan, the two most visible candidates represent distinct, rival factions: Mr. Boyer, a homebuilder, is seen as the “developer” candidate, representing the political faction led by Mr. Tomlin, who has also backed council members Tameika Devine, Kirkman Finlay III and Daniel Rickenmann. Ms. Gergel, as the past president of Historic Columbia Foundation, is perceived as the “preservationist” candidate, representing Mayor Bob Coble and other Democrats. (Never mind that Mr. Tomlin et al. supported Mr. Coble’s re-election in 2006; “conventional wisdom” overlooks such things.) Ms. Gergel, the retired head of the history and political science departments at Columbia College, rejects that pigeonhole, stressing that “I believe in the nonpartisanship of this election.” And indeed, among her contributors are names such as Jack Van Loan, a Five Points business leader and confidante of John McCain. “As far as this ‘camps’ thing,” Ms. Gergel says, “I don’t know where this is coming from, and I have no idea why someone would focus on what camp Belinda would be in. I am a strong, independent woman; that is what Columbia College did for me as a student, and what we worked on as faculty to encourage in our students. I have no permanent enemies and no personal friends on councilæ….” And as the daughter of a developer herself, she was not brought up to be “anti-development.” She says she’s for smart development that enhances existing communities, and fully understands how vital such growth is to the local economy. Mr. Boyer laughs off talk of factions, and of the Tomlin connection says he can’t help who his sister happened to marry. “I’m about as independent as they come.” As for the folks who are supposedly behind him, “none of them were there in the mountains of Afghanistan” or the “deserts of Iraq,” where he earned the Bronze Star before returning home to become a homebuilder. “I sort of feel that I’ve proved myself, and proved my decision-making ability, long before I knew those guys.” And he takes great pride in the kind of development he has been able to do, including homes priced for low-income buyers in the Arsenal Hill area. In our endorsement interviews, all of the candidates stressed public safety issues — Mr. Boyer suggesting his military experience qualifies him in that area, Ms. Gergel speaking of her own experiences dealing with crime in her University Hill neighborhood, and Mr. Swearingen promising to spend more on police whatever the political cost. All three decried the lack of accountability recently with regard to city finances. Messrs. Boyer and Swearingen both favor switching to a “strong-mayor” form of government to make city administration more answerable to the voters. Ms. Gergel, a veteran of the commission that considered changing city government, said she went in as a strong-mayor advocate, but realized it’s not going to happen politically, so the thing to do is “fix the system that we have now.” This isn’t the only City Council race on the ballot — three challengers are running to unseat at-large member Daniel Rickenmann. We’ll get to that one another day.
Here are the two TV commercials bought by the two best-known candidates for Columbia City Council District 3. That’s Brian Boyer’s, which went on the air Wednesday, above. Belinda Gergel’s, which started Friday, is below. (I would link you to the versions on thestate.com, but it’s the weekend and I’m at home and I need somebody to show me how to embed those. They’re linked from Adam Beam’s story today.)
Also, so you can see where the candidates are getting the money to spend on these ads, plus phone banks, yard signs, etc., I provide these resources:
As previously noted, City Council candidate Brian Boyer was in the news today for his precedent-setting $50,000 media buy. He tried to place the expenditure in perspective by saying, "TV is a great way to reinforce the door-to-door campaigning I’ve done."
I can back him up on the door-to-door thing. On Saturday, March 1, I was at my daughter’s home visiting grandchildren. My wife and I were at the front of the house with the babies, and my daughter and her husband (the only ones present who could vote in this thing) were at the back, when somebody knocked at the front door. "Come in," we said. The knock came again. "Come in!" But the knocker allowed as how he’d better not: "It’s a stranger," he said.
But it wasn’t. When my wife opened the door I recognized Mr. Boyer and he recognized me back where I was sitting on the couch, so I got up and we all stood on the porch (he had a buddy with him) for awhile talking about the election.
Anyway, that Wednesday he came in for his actual interview. We talked about his growing up in the district, and his schooling at Hand, Dreher and West Point. Once he got his commission, he went to Ranger School, did his airborne training, then tried out for the Ranger Regiment itself. He made it, and was sent to Savannah to join the 1st Ranger Battalion. He was just beginning to settle into the routine of being a peacetime Army officer (albeit in a crack regiment) in the summer of 2001. You know what happened then — he went to war as a rifle company commander. The battalion "lost a good many men" in Afghanistan during service on the Pakistan border, part of that in the Hindu Kush. The unit got back stateside in January 2003, figuring they’d done their bit. Two months later, the battalion joined the invasion of Iraq. He says he only served there for a couple of months. He was awarded the Bronze Star.
His career as a civilian is less dramatic. He went back to school to get an MBA, worked for awhile in Charlotte, then came home and started a homebuilding company (he is vice president of Hallmark Homes International, Inc., where he "supervises all aspects of land acquisition, design, marketing, and sales"). He bought "the ugliest house in Shandon," which had been split up into three apartments, and started fixing it up as a single-family residence. A year after he moved in, he heard Anne Sinclair would not be running for re-election to the 3rd District.
His community involvement has included service on the board of the Columbia Chamber. He takes pride in his service on the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force, and notes that he built 10 townhomes in the Historic Arsenal Hill neighborhood which appraised at $161K apiece and were sold at cost for $99K. He says he’s in the process of getting certified as a "green builder."
He would want to stress three issues on council:
Crime and Public Safety. He said adequate funding of this had not been a top priority of the city and should. He cited his military experience as being helpful in this area. He wants to get better technology in patrol cars so officers can file their reports from the field and stay out on the street more, something he called a "force multiplier." He’s distressed at the city’s and county’s inability to coordinate on youth gangs, and would want to be a bridge-builder on that.
Financial accountability. He criticized the lack of openness as well as competence, citing not only the failure to close books on time, but the secrecy about the former financial director’s severance.
General leadership. He said politicians "talk about I want to do this, I want to do that," but he has demonstrated the ability to follow through — both in the military, and with affordable housing.
He talked at some length about the failure to have an evaluation system in place for the city manager until recently. In the Army, he noted, you don’t go more than six months without a fitness report.
He would change the form of city government to a strong-mayor form, or the hybrid that’s been suggested.
When I asked him about the "factions" thing (see the elaboration on the Belinda Gergel entry), he said he couldn’t help the fact that his sister is married to Don Tomlin. "I’m about as independent as they come." As for the folks who are supposedly behind him, "none of them were there in the mountains of Afghanistan" or the "deserts of Iraq."
"I sort of feel that I’ve proved myself, and proved my decision-making ability, long before I knew those guys." At the same time, he’s proud to have their support.
When Belinda Gergel was an 18-year-old freshman at Columbia College, she first saw a house that she decided she must live in one day. Now, retired from chairing the history and political science departments at that college, she does. And her experience as a vocal community leader in the University Hill neighborhood shapes her campaign to represent it on Columbia City Council.
As president of the Historic Columbia Foundation, she led the fight to keep USC from demolishing the historic Black House and Kirkland Apartments, and sponsored some remarkably well-attended symposiums (symposia?) on the burning of Columbia and the assassination of N.G. Gonzales by the coward James Tillman. She’s currently a member of the board of Columbia Green, and is helping lead an effort to create a 22-acre Garden District in downtown Columbia.
But her interests hardly stop there. She is intensely interested in public safety — her home was burglarized the first night she was in it (not for the last time, either), and gang members shot a federal prosecutor on the same block within a month of that. "If our neighborhoods are not safe, nothing else matters," she said in our editorial board endorsement interview on March 5.
She has also reached out beyond residential concerns to form alliances with business people. She’s been endorsed by Five Points leader Jack Van Loan, who had not known her previously. (Full disclosure: Jack asked me to join him and Ms. Gergel for lunch one day in February, and I took Warren Bolton along — but all of our substantive discussion of her candidacy took place in our formal interview.)
As a member of the commission that studied Columbia’s form of government, she went in as an advocate of switching to a strong-mayor form. But she came out of that outrageously strung-out experienced convinced that such a change is not politically viable, and that we "need to fix the system we have now." A key element of that is developing a far more professional relationship between the city manager and the council. That would happen within the context of strategic planning — she says the council must set a vision, and the manager must be held accountable for implementing it, two things that have utterly failed to happen up to now.
She served on the metro-area committee that drafted a plan for a comprehensive approach to homelessness, and was "very disappointed" at the way the city went off on its own and essentially demolished the regional process. She would be determined as a council member to pick up the pieces, involve faith-based providers and all local governments in resurrecting the comprehensive approach.
She and Columbia College President Caroline Whitson rode the metro area buses last fall, and learned how hard it was to find out how to get where you want to go on that system. "When I was a student, the bus was how you got around," she said. Now, it was hard to figure out the schedule. She believes the city ought to be doing all it could to encourage people to take the bus, and get them the information to make that practical.
Probably the most interesting part of our interview was when Ms. Gergel directly confronted (she is direct and to-the-point on all issues) the talk about opponent Brian Boyer and her representing different factions in the city, despite the election being nonpartisan (the short version of that "conventional wisdom" — she is allegedly aligned with Mayor Bob Coble and other Democrats, and Mr. Boyer with his brother-in-law Don Tomlin, Daniel Rickenmann, Kirkman Finley III et al.).
"I am not in a camp," she said. "I believe in the nonpartisanship of this election, and I will not be seeking the endorsement of the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. I think that there’s a good reason for council membership to be nonpartisan."
"As far as this camps thing — I don’t know where this is coming from, and I have no idea why someone would focus on what camp Belinda would be in. I am a strong, independent woman; that is what Columbia College did for me as a student, and what we worked on as faculty to encourage in our students. I have no permanent enemies and no personal friends on council, that’s how I see it, but issues that need to be addressed, and I will work with each member of council to address those issues."
"And I know that’s what the residents of District 3 expect. They don’t want a factionalized, ‘camped,’ partisan city council. They want us working together, and moving the city ahead."
When asked at the end if there were any issues we had failed to cover, she brought up the fact that she had "sensed" that some people assumed that, because of her work in historic preservation, she was "anti-development." She said nothing could be further from the truth. As the daughter of a developer, "I have great appreciation of what development, and developers and homebuilders are all about" — a growing and vibrant economy. "That’s how we were brought up."
"We want great development," the sort that enhances a community, "and expect nothing less."
I don’t know what I just typed out all those quotes when I have those parts on video (which is how I checked the quotes). Here’s the video:
No, I don’t normally have a "quote of the day," but this is a good time to start a tradition. You saw the piece today about Brian Boyer’s unprecedented media buy — spending 50 Gs on a TV ad that will be wasted on most viewers, seeing as how most of ’em don’t live in the district?
The best part of that piece was the response from Bud Ferillo promising, on Belinda Gergel’s behalf, a similarly extravagant gesture:
“We will not be outspent,” Gergel campaign consultant Bud Ferillo said.
Had our brethren in the newsroom more license to wax interpretive, the story might have said, "… Bud Ferillo said gleefully." Nothing like being a consultant in a spending war.
Ironically, I saw Bud standing around outside his house weekend before last as I was on my way to show my wife where Ms. Gergel lived. (Long story — Brian Boyer had stopped by my daughter’s house when we were visiting, which got us to talking about the District 3 race, which caused me to mention something about where the candidates lived, and my wife had trouble picturing it. Somehow, though, I made a wrong turn and we never saw it.) I didn’t make the connection, though, either not knowing or forgetting he was handling her campaign.
Bud, noticing that the left front fender and bumper of my pickup were about to fall off (a recent collision with a bigger truck I didn’t see coming in time), told me he had hit recently a deer with his truck in Andrews, doing all sorts of ugly damage.
I got my truck back from the body shop today. Maybe when the candidates in this race get done spending, Bud will be able to get his fixed, too.
Folks, the last couple of days things have been too hectic for blogging, and the next few might be as well.
Part of the problem (and you don’t want to know all the reasons) is that dilemma I’ve cited over and over again in the past (but please don’t make me look it up to link to it right now): It’s hard both to have experiences worth blogging about, and blog. A cake and eat it too sort of thing.
Yesterday, we had three city council candidates come through on a day that would have been long, stressful and overloaded without a single one of them. The interviews were very interesting, though, and I think I have some good video, but haven’t had time to look at it. If at all possible, I’ll post something on them this weekend.
We talked to Belinda Gergel, Brian Boyer and Cameron Runyan (whom I referred to this morning yet again as Damon Runyon, but was corrected; sorry about that, Cameron). We have two council candidates (both at large) left, to whom we’ll be speaking on Tuesday. Eventually, I’ll post about all of them.
Right now, I’ll just make the overall comment that this is an unusually strong set of candidates so far, given what we’ve sometime seen in Cola city elections. More later.