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Sofa Super Store – “We don’t know who is most responsible for this tragic loss.”

Lee Walton

Public statements like that above which appeared in last Saturday’s February 2nd Palter & Chatter article, Sofa store lawsuits in flux, not only beg the question, but accentuate the collective head-in-the-sand attitude and questionable motives of those in positions of responsibility to frame the proper questions. As “complex” as Circuit Judge Roger Young declared the circumstances of this case to be, one clear, unambiguous fact remains - if nine firefighters had not been ordered into a known death trap, they would still be alive today.

Responsibility clearly equates to accountability and the erroneous CFD command and control structure that placed nine brave, dedicated men in an explosive environment over which they had little control. Their unnecessary sacrifice did nothing to prevent the loss of life or property that ultimately occurred, but it clearly demonstrated the futility of their misguided efforts. Why were these brave men initially placed in harm’s way without adequate supervision or equipment and later allowed to remain beyond the point of no return?

These aren’t complex legal questions. They don’t require a multitude of legal scholars or countless seasoned litigators to formulate. These questions, which beg to be asked, require only common sense and the courage to ask them. Ask the question – “Who is most responsible?’ Who in the CFD had tactical command and control of the fire ground? Who placed these brave men in such a potentially fatal environment? Why weren’t these firemen better aware of the structural flaws, lack of sprinklers and dangerous content of the death trap that quickly became their tomb? What agency allowed an old super market to morph into a meandering collection of adjoining structures in violation of numerous building codes? Why were the firemen not better trained and equipped to confront the challenges before them? Where was the experienced and properly trained CFD tactical leadership that could have averted this tragedy? Lastly, and most basically, where in the City does the “buck stop”, and who bears the ultimate responsibility and accountability for the needless loss of nine lives?

Why are the members of City Council, dozens of regulatory experts, and teams of lawyers representing the bereaved families all blindly choosing to walk around or step over the 500-pound gorilla sitting ponderously in the middle of this tragedy? Why is the word “accountability” suddenly erased from the vocabularies of elected officials, local journalist and the multitude of legal experts now confronted with the aftermath of this tragedy? Who are they trying to protect and why?

As the old cliché goes – “It’s not rocket science!” From a governance perspective, accountability and public trust are conjoined twins. Those now in positions of power conspiring to manipulate the outcome of this tragedy for their benefit may be able to influence the findings of the ongoing investigations but at what ultimate cost to public trust in those that govern the City of Charleston?

“Who is most responsible?” One could make a convincing argument that the ultimate responsibility lies with City Council. “All powers of the city are vested in the city council, except as otherwise provided by law… (Charleston Code Section 2-17(a)).” Arguably, Riley can’t be blamed for being the political despot that he’s evolved to be; he just can’t help himself. He was programmed and educated as a youth to become what he is now; being the Mayor of Charleston was his destiny. As a young, first term mayor, Riley inherited the collective power and influence of the earlier “Broad Street Gang” and other ethnic, covert powerbrokers that controlled the political and economic future of the Lowcountry during the first half of the last century. Likewise, Rusty Thomas can’t be blamed for being an uneducated “good old boy” fire chief who owes everything he is and has to Riley. These events were allowed to evolve unchecked due to a man-made vacuum that sucked the character, courage and credibility from Charleston’s City Council.

From a purely legislative perspective, City Council bears a heavy responsibility for the unnecessary loss of nine lives and should be held accountable by the electorate for their share in the tragic events of June 18th. The majority of those who now serve and have served on Council for the past 35 years have allowed these events to occur by their collective inaction, acquiescence, or complicity. Slowly, but ever so methodically, Riley has transformed the City’s elected legislative body into nothing more than a hand-picked advisory committee of sycophants whose sole reason for being is to legitimize the actions and objectives of a power mongering despot.

Be careful what you wish for – the citizens of Charleston also have only themselves to blame for their part in the tragedy of June 18th. Until the electorate of Charleston has the wisdom and courage to elect a majority of Council who will fight to recover Council’s rightful legislative powers and have the fortitude to exercise Council’s legitimate control over city government, nothing will change. The tragedy of June 18th will be swept under the rug in Riley’s office just like the Maloney embezzlement, the financial folly of the Aquarium, the multi-million dollar golf course tunnel, and the multitude of secretive real estate development deals that continue to needlessly squander taxes and erode the quality-of life once so unique to Charleston.

Change will come one day; it’s only a matter of time. Until then, it will be business as usual in the Republic of Charleston.

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