The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance

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City Council, August 21

Council defers discussion on Fire Department deficiencies
Approves rezoning for hotel and Dock Street Theatre contract amendment
Marc Knapp

The rezoning of a proposed hotel site on King Street and the management of City’s Fire Department were the two most important issues discussed on Tuesday night. Some Council members were also unhappy about the cost of renovating the Dock Street Theatre and the low participation of minorities in the sub contracting.

Voting was not unanimous but Council approved both the rezoning and the renovation of the theatre. But members seemed to flap about when Council member Fishburne suggested there were serious questions raised about the City Fire department. Nobody denied the questions, but many Council members thought it best to leave discussion until the investigation of the Sofa Store fire had been completed. The Mayor indicated that the report of the independent investigators would be available to Council by September 11.

Criticism of City Fire department continues
Discussion on the Sofa Store fire began with a vote relating to Workers Compensation payments. It was raised again when the head of the Firefighters Association rose in Citizens Participation to make some critical comments. It ended later when Council member Fishburne made his comments, raised pointed questions, and sought action from Council. More for record than interest, the City appropriated $1.5 million from the General Fund to cover extra workers compensation payments and replenish the Council Emergency Fund. The two items were $1.2 million and $300,000 respectively. We understand the first amount will be paid to the State to cover the City’s deductable arising for claims made, or to be made on Workers Compensation relating to the lost firefighters.

Firefighters Association critical of recent appointments
Some of us were dozing off after about 4 hours of presentations and discussion but were brought back to life by comments from the head of the Firefighters Association during Citizens Participation. He referred to the report released last week commenting of the large deficiencies in the City’s firefighting management, organization and equipment. The report did much to lift the morale of firefighters, he said (we presume because of its candor). However, the report made recommendation, amongst others, to create two new positions, a second-in-charge of the Department and a Safety Officer. Both positions were filled almost immediately by the City. He expressed surprise. These positions were filled from the ranks and by persons who had little experience that equipped them for such roles. He commented that morale of firefighters “nose-dived” on the announcement of the appointments. The head of the Firefighters Association also produced a study that was given to the Fire Department and City Council in 2001, that outlined a lot of the deficiencies of the department that have been criticized by the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel thus far.

Neither the Mayor or Council members took up the challenge thrown down by the Association member. In the case of Council member Fishburne, it probably reflected the fact that he was scheduled to speak on the Firefighter issue later in the meeting.

Hard questions by Council member Fishburne
It was a hard-knuckle performance by the Council member. He began by reading the lead paragraphs from the Post and Courier when it carried the reports of the investigators, (P&C Saturday July 18). We suspect that most viewers saw this report but suffice to say now is that it was very critical.

Council member Fishburne stated that the recommendations from the investigators came quickly after they had begun their task. The implication was the deficiencies of the department were very clear. He asked the following questions.

• Why weren’t the changes put in place long ago?
• Why not implemented immediately after the fire?
• How could it be that the fire department had such deficiencies? Citizens had been told the department was the best led, trained and equipped in the County.

My take on his questions is that the Fire Department is at best a second rate department and not the gem we have been let to believe.

The Council member asked that issues relating to the Fire Department be put on the agenda for the next Council meeting. He also requested that Council be part of any investigation though he was not asking to be involved directly.

Council uneasy at request
As we noted earlier, Council members flapped around the request. Some were sympathetic but nearly all were loathe to do anything until the final report was received. Mayor Riley said that the final report was due by September 11 and would be given to Council members. Discussion should be deferred until then. But he added that he continued to support Chief “Rusty” Thomas who was a “fine person and working to implement” the necessary changes. Chief Thomas did not attend last night’s meeting.

Readers should refer back to my comment on the Sofa Super Store fire on June 21. I am a novice when it comes to firefighting, but I may have better command knowledge than the on-scene commanders that tragic day. I am truly concerned that when the final report comes out that the Chief and his command staff will be seen as not qualified to manage the Department.

I also hold the Mayor responsible for this tragic event. The continued diversion of funds from needed essential services to nonessential areas is blatantly evident. The Mayor continues to come up with new taxes for supposed infrastructure. Instead of lifting funding levels to finance needed upgrades, he siphons money from the General Fund at th expense of the department budgets,

I can not count the number of times I called Chief Thomas about his personnel not wearing seat belts. This was evident even after the new seat belt laws went into effect. This obviously fell upon deaf ears since one of the first recommendations of the investigators was that personnel start wearing their seat belts. This was just the tip of the iceberg, and as we have seen, it was the precursor of much more tragic events.

I also believe that if experts were sent into each City department, they would find find many and similar problems relating to safety, training, and basic efficiency.

Council approves King Street rezoning
There is little to add on the rezoning of 404 King Street. Most of the comments had been made at other meetings. Rezoning went before the Planning Commission last month and the proposed hotel building was approved by the Board of Architectural Review earlier this year. Last year, the Board of Zoning Appeals granted variances that allowed the developers to plan a 105 foot high structure over the whole lot.

Previously 60% of the lot was in the 3x zoning which allowed a height up to 105 feet, the balance was in a 55 feet height district. The City wanted to apply the 3x zoning to the whole lot and this was the issue that went before the Planning Commission and was back before Council last night. As the developer had received permission to build the proposed structure, many wondered why the property was being rezoned. It was not necessary.

Preservationists led by the Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF), the Preservation Society (PC) and the National Trust opposed the rezoning. They all said that a building was fine for the site, but the 105 foot was too high. The height should be reduced. One speaker suggested that the City’s decision to pursue the rezoning was to make moot the law suit that HCF and PC has taken out against the City. Speakers last night claimed the City was spot zoning.

Supporters of the new building said the design was pleasing and did not overwhelm Marion Square. The size was fine, the large hotel would add “energy” to Upper King Street. And it was not spot zoning.

Council members Lewis and Shirley were the only two members of Council to oppose the rezoning.

Contract amended but some Council members till unhappy
We confess to some confusion relating the Dock Side Theatre renovation. At the last meeting, Council accepted a bid of $15.5 million for the renovation from NBM Construction. This was above the $14 million budgeted figure and Council asked whether the price could be reduced. The City subsequently met with the contractor and by changes and deletions, the contact was reduced by $700,000. We are not sure the Council’s wishes were really fulfilled. We suspect members were looking at a reduction of NBM’s profit margin. The reduction in the contract price came at the cost of quality (eg carpeted instead of stone floors) and changes in allowances mostly.

This entire process of looking for different subcontractors smacks of bid shopping. The other problem is that I know for a fact that the Dock Street Theater has serious structural problems. I am wondering if this information was given to all the bidding contractors and was in the bid plans. This of course leaves the door open for some major change-orders for the successful bidder.

Concern about minority participation
At the last Council meeting, some members were concerned about the absence of minority firms amongst the subcontractors. After discussion with NBM, the Mayor assured members that minority and disadvantaged business owners would participate to the extent of about 12% of the contract price. It could ultimately be higher depending on the outcome of further bidding.

This was not good enough for some members who wanted to see the commitment in writing. The Mayor and others said that it was there in writing and could be seen by Council members. Despite these assurances, 4 Council members voted against the approval of the contract, insufficient to stop its approval.

Members looking for a Diversity Policy
We suspect that the vote by the 4 Council members was more symbolic than anything else. The African American Council members have been asking the City to implement a diversity policy for procurement and contracting. They are still waiting.

Much abused words - “I’m going to be short“
Finally, the most abused words at City Council “I’m going to be short”. Some members of Council were “going to be short” a number of times when they rose to comment. Most never were. The Mayor had the grace to mock himself when he signaled an intention to be short. Council member Shirley alluded to a comment for the Mayor that went “on and on”.

Last night’s meetings stretched from 4,30 pm to nearly 10 pm – more than 5 hours. Now that’s endurance. And it is no wonder that many items at the end of the agenda receive little on no scrutiny. Maybe Council meetings should be twice a month in the summer months as is norm,