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County Council Meeting December 1

Righting an injustice
Public hearing on proposed Conservation Bank
Warwick Jones, standing in for Shawn Keller who is on military duty

There were not many spectators left at the close of yesterday's Finance Committee Meeting. Because of an executive session, the meeting began more than an hour late and time took a toll after a lengthy discussion about the proposed Conservation Bank. But the meeting had an electrifying ending. Council Member Darby, in a passionate speech, spoke of an injustice that had been dealt the County Attorney, Mr. Joe Dawson. He also requested that Mr Dawson's rate of remuneration be set at $160 an hour. Council member Darby had only recently learned on the injustice and judging from his manner, he was clearly incensed.

We suspect that the Council member was more intent on righting a wrong than securing the proposed figure. From our understanding of what the Council member and others said, Council agreed some time ago to retain Mr. Dawson and to pay him a remuneration of $125 an hour. He was not to be a full time employee, but to be at the call of Council when needed. Last year, the remuneration was lowered to $105 an hour, a reduction that was made unilaterally - that is without the agreement of Mr. Dawson. According to Council member Darby, this was done behind closed doors and without any vote by Council that was made public. This was very wrong he said. And Council member Pryor agreed.

However nobody else agreed or disagreed. Most Council members seemed uncomfortable and Chairman Stavrinakis attempted to defer discussion by reminding Council member Darby that as the item had not been placed on the agenda, it needed unanimous consent of the Committee for it to be discussed. Council member Darby was clearly unhappy about any deferral but yielded when Council members Condon and Inabinett stated that they knew nothing of the matter and would like to be able to ascertain the facts before discussing and voting.

Chairman Stavrinakis was not happy about the abrupt way the issue was raised and also noted that Mr. Dawson was the highest paid of all County Attorneys in South Carolina. He would have preferred to discuss the matter privately before bringing to the Committee.

If there was any person at the meeting last night who really looked uncomfortable it was Mr. Dawson. He probably knew that Council member Darby was going to make an issue of what happened but according to the Council member, Mr. Dawson had not asked that the issue be raised. Yesterday's meeting was the second time over the last 12 months or so that Mr. Dawson's remuneration has become an issue, though both issues are probably related. Council made large demands on Mr. Dawson's time in 2003 and in consequence, his pay for the year exceeded $300,000, certainly a high figure by the standards of the South.

In Mr. Dawson's favor, no gun was held at the head of Council when the original agreement was drawn up between him and the Council. Council agreed to an hourly rate and for Mr. Dawson to continue in private practice. And in legal circles, a remuneration of $125 an hour is well within a normal range. It was Mr. Dawson's good fortune that the County needed so much of his time but a contract is a contract. And there seems no dispute over Mr. Dawson's ability. Chairman Stavrinakis opined last night that Mr. Dawson may well be the best attorney the County has ever had. And should the fact that Mr. Dawson is the highest paid of County Attorneys in the State be relevant? We don't think so. Somebody has to be the highest paid. Drawing attention to this fact is really a diversion. Mr. Dawson was hired at a specific rate to do a specific job. He has done the job well and it up to the County to fulfill its part of the agreement.

Public Hearing on Conservation Bank slated for Tuesday
The proposed County Conservation Bank was up for discussion at last night's meeting. Council member Fava raised a number of issues some of which were discussed by the Committee. But Council member Scott made the observation that the public may well have some good ideas about the Bank and that final discussion on amendments should wait the public hearing which will occur next Tuesday evening. Any changes to the proposed ordinance could be discussed in the aftermath and if worthwhile incorporated. This proposal was accepted by the Committee.

We note some of Council member Fava's comments. The most important is the issue of the relationship between the Greenbelts Advisory Board (GAB), the Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC), the proposed Conservation Bank (CB), and the Council. "As I interpret the proposed (Bank) ordinance, it casts the Bank Board as the dominant player. However, the ordinance (relating to the Sale tax) …..established that the primary advisory body to the County for greenbelts is the PRC and the purpose of the GAB is to advise the PRC. In this regard, my opinion is that the Bank should be the vehicle by which the County Council executes the recommendations of the PRC/GAB.

It has long been our contention that the ordinance that established the GAB was not clear and the GAB's relationship with the PRC not well defined. We are not sure that Council member Fava agrees with this but he is certainly unclear about the relationship with the creation of the CB. And we would agree that a body needs to be created to execute the recommendations of the PRC and the GAB. It is up to Council to decide whether it should be the proposed Bank, some other entity, or a department set up under the auspices of the County. Council member Darby questioned the need for a separate Board for the CB and as to whether it would be better to consider some way to merge the activities of the GAB and the CB. He also opined that the Ordinance creating the CB cast the GAB in a subordinate role.

Council member Bostic thought it would be better to keep the GAB separate and for it to fulfill its role as defined. He hoped that the CB would be created, essentially for a procurement role, but he stated there was no reason why the ordinance could not be amended in future. Council member Inabinett said that he was broadly in favor of the CB but he would prefer to have the input of the GAB which was still in the process of determining the Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan. He was obviously very reluctant to approve the CB until he could obtain the GAB's views.

Council member Fava also asked how "greenbelts" would be defined in the CB ordinance. It seemed the consensus that the definition in the ordinance would be the same as that used by the GAB. The GAB already has a draft definition but its final form will await a second round of public hearings. He also questioned the bank's ability to make grants of up to $500,000 without Council approval. This question was now moot as Council has decided that all grants need its approval.

A smaller issue was the payment of per diem and mileage expenses to CB Board members. Council member Fava questioned the need for such an inclusion as it was not in ordinances relating to other County Boards. Council member Bostic said that it was only fair and that maybe is should be available for members of other boards. We ask is it very relevant? The CB is going to have an executive director. Board members should not be traveling around the County or State on board business, this is the role of the executive director.

Council member Inabinett also was concerned about the ability of the public to access to lands that were purchased with sales tax funds. This involved some discussion about the purchase of development rights and the various alternatives available to the CB in its financing role.

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