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City Council June 20

Council tries a new way to combat violent crime
We question City's banker role. Discussion on smoking ban
Warwick Jones, standing in for Marc Knapp

The need to deal with violent crime was the most important issue before Council last night. But the need for a smoke-free environment evoked the longer discussion, even though the issue was not on the agenda. Most items on the agenda were approved by Council with little or no discussion. But one of those items, a loan to Elpis Inc, should have drawn some questions, in our view. It also caused us to reflect on the hypocrisy, perhaps unwitting, of some of the discussion on crime.

Frustration over high level of homicides
Council member Gilliard has been outspoken over the years about the need to deal with violent crime in the community. Clearly, he and other members of the community are frustrated over the high number of homicides, most of which are drug-related. We note that there have been a number of initiatives in recent years to combat crime, but seemingly none have been effective. To reflect the gravity of the situation, the Council member had gathered the names of all the homicide victims in the last four years in Charleston. It was a long list that he distributed. Some of the victims were known to Council members. They spoke of the victim's innocence and the waste of life. It was a somber moment for Council and spectators.

Up for discussion was the introduction of a curfew for youth in crime ridden areas. Council member Gilliard placed the matter on the Council agenda and sought discussion. Although he did not say so in the precise words, he felt that other measures had been tried and failed. Curfews may be a drastic solution, but these are drastic times, If Council members had another solution, say so.

Mayor speaks of a new initiative.
Mayor Riley did have another solution - jurisdictional limitations on individuals during sentencing. It followed a request at meetings earlier this year by other Council members, particularly Council member Mitchell, for the introduction of anti-loitering laws. The Council was told by legal counsel that the introduction of anti-loitering laws was not possible because of a Supreme Court ruling. The solution proposed by the Mayor would not fall foul of the Supreme Court ruling, but hopefully would have the same effect as an anti-loitering law.

Quoting from a letter by the Mayor to Council members, The jurisdictional proposal would work as follows. After conviction for any group or specifically enumerated offense, the court would impose as a condition of the sentence that while a defendant is not incarcerated, he/she must for certain time avoid specified places, certain people, or both. Failure to do so would constitute a violation of the sentence, which could result in an incarceration that was deferred on the original crime. When the police see the person on conditional release in a place where he or she should not be, or with people he/she should not associate, the officer would have the ability to cause the person to disperse or be subject to arrest. In short, the police should be given this authority, but the law should only reach those who have been previously labeled by the court as someone whose presence in certain places and with certain people creates an unacceptable risk

The Mayor has sent letters to Mr. Ralph Hoisington the Solicitor for Charleston County and to Judge McFarland, Chief Judge of the Municipal Court requesting the implementation of the jurisdictional limitations.

Need for whole community to be involved
Most Council members spoke on the issue of crime and expressed their concern. Council member Gilliard implored the whole community to get committed and make sacrifices that are necessary, for only in that way can we make a difference. Councilmember Fishburne asked as to the number of police that the City could commit to combating the crime problem? Can we reallocate assets? Do we need to hire more police? He was willing to do just about anything that the Mayor and his colleagues suggest to deal with the problem.

Some family members encourage children to deal
Council member Gallant highlighted some of the problems of dealing with crime. Some members of the community will not cooperate with the police and help identify perpetrators of crime. He had been called a "snitch" for his willingness to cooperate. Youth had been drawn to drug distribution and sometimes with the encouragement of family members, he said. They had been pleased with the money raised, which was being used to pay rent and for groceries. We are suffering the consequences, the Council member said. "We are not doing enough. We have nothing for these kids to do".

City to act as banker for Elpis Inc
And Council member Gallant's remark leads us to the item that should have been discussed and wasn't. Council voted to make a 90-day loan of $105,000 to Elpis Inc. This loan is to be repaid when Elpis receives a Community Development Block Grant funded by HUD, which is $150,000. The funds will be used to pay bank interest of $52,800, communication costs of $26,400, building supplies and copier costs of $12,800, security system $8,000, and custody and waste disposable of $5,000.

Elpis is a nonprofit organization that over the last 13 years or so spent more than $5 million, mostly renovating Josiah Smith Tennant house on E. Bay St. The house and a dependency hold facilities to provide social and other services to the East side community. Council member Gallant until last year was a director of the organization Agape Ministries of which he is a member, also falls under its umbrella.

First the unimportant questions. Why is the City acting as a banker to a nonprofit? We have never seen this before. Why couldn't the non-profit seek financing from a bank? Is there any reason why it couldn't receive short-term financing? After all, the CBDG grant is virtually guaranteed. And $26,400 for communications?

What benefits has the East side received?
The more important question is what service is this non-profit providing for the community? Its web site suggests many. But we asked members of the East Side as to the community participation, and they know of nobody who has used its facilities. As we have written before, Elpis has done a marvelous job in restoring the historic house. Possibly over $5 million has been spent by the non-profit on renovation or financing costs, with close to $1 million coming from HUD funds via the City. But as far as providing needed social services to the East Side community, we don't see the value from the investment.

And as Council member Gallant said, "We are not doing enough. We have nothing for these kids to do". The welfare of the East Side community may have been served in some measure by the restoration of Josiah Smith Tennant House over the 13 year period. But in our view, the welfare of the community could've been much better helped with the deployment of the restoration funds in parks and facilities serving youth and community, or in "affordable housing".

A reminder for Council
We also remind Council members that most voted for the development of Ansonborough Field. It could have been converted into playing fields for the youth of the Peninsula. About 4 years ago, we contacted a prominent member of the African American community who has been decrying the lack of space for youth, particularly the East and West Sides. We suggested the use of Ansonborough Field for playing fields and community recreation, but although he thought it was an interesting idea, was loathe joining a political battle. Maybe Council members had similar thoughts at the time but for whatever reason, they remained only that.

Curfews, anti-loitering laws, and jurisdictional limitations are band aids or bandages on the sore of crime. They stop the bleeding but the root cause of the affliction remains unaddressed. In this writer's view the solution is education, opportunity and better parenting. And these factors were not addressed by Council, and to be fair, Council's influence is limited.

Public hearing cancelled but people spoke on smoking ban regardless
Considering the time spent by Council, we should mention the discussion of a smoking ban in restaurants and bars. It seems a public hearing was on the agenda but removed before the meeting. However, a large number of people turned up to speak and the Mayor allowed them to do so. Nobody spoke against the ban but one spoke of the City-formed Committee to study the issue. He and others spoke of differences between the smoking ordinances of the County and the municipalities, and the need for a uniform ordinance.

Discussion premature
It seemed to us that the Mayor only was being considerate in letting the public speak at the meeting because of the effort they made to attend. He did not want a full blown discussion. But the discussion just went on and on, with Council members also contributing. Council members Bleeker and Shirley ultimately confessed to some degree of confusion. Wasn't the issue discussed at a Council meeting some months ago? Shouldn't the recommendation of the committee formed by the City to study the issue be discussed? Shouldn't the suggestions of Council members Tinkler and Fishburne who were preparing a draft study, be considered.

The issue will come again before Council within a few months. Considering the interest in the issue, Council member Bleeker jokingly suggested Council may have to use the Guilliard Auditorium.

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