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Riley – Mayor or Maestro?
Lee Walton

The current power imbroglio among a few Charleston City Council Members and Mayor J. Pericles Riley following in the wake of the tragic death of nine city firefighters has again focused much needed public scrutiny upon the legal powers and responsibilities of city council. Under the seemingly endless imperial reign of Pericles, the functions of council have been relegated to that of an emasculated advisory committee to be ignored or patronized at the pleasure of the Mayor. His recent public discourse with a few members of Council’s Public Safety Committee exemplifies Riley’s self-proclaimed role as Maestro of the Chamber Music emanating twice monthly from City Hall.

In keeping with the persona of other classical conductors, Maestro Pericles expects and, indeed, demands that members of his council chamber orchestra unobtrusively play their respective scores, perform in tune with his policies, and perform only to the rhythm of his scrawny-fingered baton. Woe unto any member of his council chamber orchestra that does not follow his selected musical rendition or elects to perform solo and unrehearsed under the glaring guise of Maestro Pericles. Their duty and obligation is to only perform for the pleasure and glory of the Maestro – nothing more.

As a recent example of Chamber Music content and tone orchestrated by Maestro Pericles, one need look no further than the August 28th Palter & Chatter article, “Council split on role in fire dept.” In a rare, albeit pensive, flash of individuality, a few Council members dared to speak out of tune and were quickly chided by the Maestro and his handpicked and well rehearsed lackey, Harpy Wilson, who warned her fellow members to “… avoid knee-jerk reactions and let the official investigations run their course.” Her pitifully obvious sop to the Maestro contrasted openly with the recent, immediate recommendations from the City’s own team of expert fire investigators. These “…experienced, educated and professional…” experts elected not to delay beyond five days after beginning their investigation before making several immediate recommendations for sweeping changes in city fire department policies and procedures.

Maestro Pericless and City council members had an opportunity to act responsibly after receiving a manifesto from City firefighters three years ago which contained several grievances and recommendations, one of which was universal concern over the continued use of polyester uniforms that would melt to the skin and intensify burns suffered by firemen. In his quintessential defense of “form over function” and in an obvious effort to have crisp, blue uniform seams visible in all photographs of his “ISO Class One” firefighters, Maestro Pericles scolded, intimidated and ridiculed the majority of Council into acquiescence and acceptance of his and Chief Rusty’s combined wisdom that polyester uniforms were safe and posed no danger to the firefighters who wore them - so much for their “expert” opinions. The tragedy of June 18th may have been averted but for the lack of courage by the then members and Chairman of the Public Safety Committee as they continued to be persuaded by the Maestro’s polemic arrogance and ignored the persistent pleadings from several city firefighters.

Why then did Maestro Pericles react so swiftly three days after the Palter & Chatter’s August 29th article, “Uniform under scrutiny”, co-authored by staff reporters Ron Menchaca and Glenn Smith? Was his response, by Harpy Wilson’s definition, a “knee-jerk reaction”? Conversely, could it be that the power of investigative reporting and critical, “Bad Press” has more influence over Maestro Pericles than the City’s elected Council members? One thing for certain, Pericles cannot tolerate or abide public criticism or any efforts to hold him publicly accountable for his actions or those of his handpicked administration of unqualified lackeys and cronies. Not surprisingly, he reacted quickly to save his political skin when exposed in the stark light of truth by a factual, critical press.

Notwithstanding the recent tepid election year efforts by Council members Lewis, Gallant and Fishburne as they played out of tune and questioned Maestro Pericles’ usurpation of council’s lawful powers, their meager efforts to reassert Council’s rightful authority was far too little and far too late. The Maestro’s purposeful selection, support, and manipulation of the majority of those serving on council for three decades has effectively thwarted any attempt by individual members to reassert the rightful authority of council over city policy and governance.

“Uniform under scrutiny” and the recent series of frank, openly critical articles published by the Palter & Chatter following the tragic loss of nine firefighters have been both informative and effective. In this rare instance, those who control the Palter & Chatter have allowed and, one must hope, encouraged their reporters to openly question flawed City administration policy when council would not act responsibly to do so.

Having chipped at the visible tip of the “relative powers” iceberg of city government, Charleston would be well served by a broadened, in-depth journalistic analysis of the relative legal powers and responsibilities of both council and the office of mayor. An unambiguous, public airing in the local press would be immensely beneficial to the reestablishment of municipal governance as intended by the City Code.

Even a despot like Maestro Pericles must not be allowed to ignore the authority of council as stated in Section 2-17 of the City Code –“All powers of the city are vested in the city council…city council shall provide for the exercise of and for the performance of all duties and obligations imposed on the municipality…and may prescribe the function of all departments officers and agencies…” What part of this clear statement of authority is ambiguous to council or Maestro Pericles? Likewise, the powers and duties of the mayor are clearly stated in Code Section 2-96 – “He shall be responsible to the city council for the administration of all city affairs and the execution of all laws and ordinances.” Clearly, the City Code dictates that council make policy decisions while the mayor administrates the execution of those policies.

City Council is as complacent and accountable for the recent tragedy as the Mayor and his “good-old-boy” Fire Chief. By their collective inaction, City Council has precipitated the unbalanced power vacuum that is now allowed to exist within City government. This inability of council to assert its rightful authority has created a totalitarian city-state, orchestrated by a despot who is unaccountable to all but a few powerful, influential members of the Lowcountry’s deal-estate development complex.

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