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Forum for Mayoral Candidates
Lots of heat for his administration but no response by Mayor
Warwick Jones

The League of Women Voters was probably taken aback by the ferocity of last night’s election forum. The four candidates for mayor of the City faced off against each other at a forum arranged by the League at the County Library on Calhoun Street. If past debates were an indication, the verbal assaults of contenders would have been strokes with the soft end of a feather duster. But not last night!.

Whether the tone was set by Marc Knapp, who was typically Marc Knapp, or whether the aspirants planned a strong offense, we don’t know. But they strongly attacked the Mayor and his administration and vowed to make many changes. And unlike other debates, the City’s response to the Super Store fire got a lot of attention.

Limited times to speak
Candidates were given 90 seconds for each of their opening remarks, closing remarks, and response to questions. The League rigorously imposed the time limits with no latitude for any of the aspirants. The League posed the first question - Your vision for the next 4 to 8 years if elected? All the other questions were drawn from the attendees. The mayoral contenders had no knowledge of the nature of the latter questions though most could have been predicted.

Mayor was not impressive
Strangely perhaps, the performance of the Mayor was the least impressive of the candidates. He made no mention of the Super Store fire and relied largely on his record as Mayor. But his comments seemed hollow and scripted. They and the tired clichés could have come from any of his inaugural speeches over the last 30 years. Included were a few half-or-less truths in some of his claims of achievement.

We were impressed by all of the remaining candidates. All were able to respond to the questions posed by the League and attendees, with sensible and reasonable answers. All would make major changes in the administration, make it more transparent, and more responsive to citizens’ wishes.

Polished performance by others but particularly Gregorie’s
Arguably William Gregorie gave the most polished performance. He clearly has a strong grasp as to what is going on in the City. His knowledge of Fire Department around the City enabled him to deflate one of the Mayor’s claims in relation to the number of City fire stations on Daniel Island. The Mayor claimed two but as Mr. Gregorie pointed out, one was manned by volunteers and closed most of the time. He opened his comments with the claim that the City had often misled citizens about its actions, and in particular the City Fire Department. There was a need for transparency in City Government.

Marc Knapp wielded a verbal cutlass when he spoke but the unsheathing also let loose some hyperbole that sometimes blunted his attack. As he has been attending Council meetings for years, he probably has more knowledge of the workings of Council than any of the candidates bar the Mayor. He was scathing of the City in its handling of the Sofa Store fire and has been calling for the firing of Chief Thomas. He was scathing last night, not only of the Fire Department, but of police, taxes and fees, budgeting and transparency. Some backs straightened in the audience when he stated that if citizens continue to support Mayor Riley they all would be culpable (of contributing to the mismanagement of the City).

Omar Brown’s approach was more simplistic, but as effective as any of the other candidates. There were no extreme positions and no hyperbole. He was plain spoken and coldly critical. His responses were measured and thoughtful with no displays of strong emotion. There was no complexity to his positions, they were simple and defensible. “Your interest is my interest”, he declared in his opening statement.

Your Vision for the next 4 to 8 years?
Mr. Gregorie said he wanted to make the City work for everyone. He again emphasized the need for transparency and the need to concentrate on public safety – police and fire Departments. Mr. Knapp wanted to tear down the City administration and rebuild it. Mayor Riley wanted to concentrate on public safety and then went on to highlight the good things the City had done in the past. Mr. Brown emphasized the need to fix the environment, not only in relation to pollution but the working and living environments which include education and public safety.

What would you do to stop Kinder Morgan from polluting the Cooper River?
Mr. Knapp said that this really wasn't the City’s responsibility. It was that of the DEA or DHEC but that the City should try to work with these agencies. The other candidates responded similarly though Mr. Brown and Mr. Gregorie thought an aggressive stance was needed.

What would you say to a new graduate from a local college to entice him to work and live in Charleston?
The Mayor noted the advantages of the City, its beauty, parks, playgrounds, livability and economic prospects etc. The other aspirants were more measured. Messrs Brown and Gregorie said the City faced challenges. The potential for the City was great and a new graduate if he or she were willing to work and participate could share in the challenge and the rewards. Mr. Knapp said Charleston was “pretty and good, in places. But it was not the best City in the world”. A graduate would encounter challenges and opportunities.

What would you do offer adequate “affordable housing” for families earning less than $30,000 a year?
Mr. Brown did not answer the question directly but stated the need to ensure that better education was available for all citizens. A better education for youth would enhance their earnings prospects and lessen the need for “affordable housing”. Mr. Gregorie suggested that that part of the City between Hagood, Rutledge, Spring and Sumter Streets be identified as an area of opportunity and incentives be given for the creation of “affordable housing”. Mr. Knapp called for a reduction or elimination in the fees imposed by the City on new construction and which added to the cost of housing. He also suggested that people seeking “affordable housing” be prepared to work longer and be more patient in seeking a house of their desires. Mayor Riley did not address the question but referred to some of the projects undertaken for “affordable housing” in the past. What he did not say was that much of the housing was provided by non-profits. and funds distributed by the City were largely those derived from HUD and designated for the use of “affordable housing” and other social purposes.

Approach to annexation and the possibility of exceeding the capacity of police and fire services?
Messrs Knapp andGregorie criticized the policy in the past and the piece- meal approach. Both stated that this approach threatened the efficacy of public safety services. Mayor Riley said that annexation was necessary and gave the City a higher and more viable tax base. Mr. Brown said there was nothing wrong with annexation. It was applying the revenues derived from the annexations that were the problem. Were the higher taxes from the higher base used appropriately?

How could you reduce traffic congestion in the City?
Mayor Riley led off reminding folk of his support of the half-cent sales tax and the spending of these funds on improving roads He said the expansion of public transport was key to easing congestion. Mr.Gregorie responded by asking how could you trust the present administration that is partly responsible for the present mess to lead us out of the mess? He called for a community based effort to solve the problem. Mr. Brown was skeptical about spending our way out of the problem. He instanced developments in Virginia where after a period of time, the expanded highways were again choked with cars. He suggested the burden of funding infrastructure be shifted back to the developers who were creating the new housing and the traffic problems. Mr. Knapp noted that the City had spent millions of dollars on traffic flow systems and still had not got it right.

How to create a better balance between the “haves” and the “have nots”, look after the homeless?
Mayor Riley cited the work of the Crisis Ministries to ministering to the needy. We thought the Mayor took too much credit. Looking at the last IRS form 990 submitted by the Ministries, we noted that of the total $2.3 million funding in 2005 (latest year available) more than half came from private donations and most of the balance from Federal funding. City, County and other local entities contributed only $83,000. Mr. Brown suggested that a way should be shown to make the “have not” a “have”, and cited education again. Mr. Knapp echoed these views.

How will you work to increase property values?
No aspirant said they would work to increase property values but all said or insinuated the higher values would follow the progress and the improvement of the quality of life. Mr. Knapp suggested that property taxes should be reduced and reflect only the cost of services provided by the City to each homeowner. High taxes restrained property values he insinuated.

How will you fund any of the expansion of services you are seeking?
Mr. Gregorie said he will deliver and not promise But any changes will be within the current budget. Mr. Knapp sort of said the same. He sees fat in the City budget and can achieve savings. For example, he would cut back on distributions to charities and stop litigation against the Town of James Island. Mr. Brown also thought that better efficiencies could be achieved and promised a transparent government. The Mayor called on history again for an answer. He said that over the last 15 years, taxes had fallen, an indication presumably of the financial acumen of the City. (What he should have said was that millage rates had fallen. The rise in property values more than offset the fall in millage rates and in consequence, overall taxes of most citizens had risen strongly). He also said that TIF financing has been put in place for Magnolia development and was being considered for the development of the land near the old Cooper River Bridge.

Summing up
The Mayor– pledges to make the City a leader in safety, to forge a partnership with the School Board, to boost economic development and lead an effort to boost regional planning
Knapp- make essential services a priority.
Gregorie– thorough overhaul of the City, make up deficiencies in the Fire Department, ensure transparency, look to help people move beyond public housing and to better educate the children of the needy.
Brown - ensure that children get education and that education is productive; make sure essential services are provided.