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City Council, August 18

Chief Mullen’s day in Council - police presence to be boosted
Council meetings to be televised?
Marc Knapp

It was another long summer meeting. However, there were a number of issues that deserved discussion though probably less than that given. Two of the more important issues were reported fully in today’s Post and Courier. They were the decision to install security cameras at critical points in Charleston to deter crime, and term limits for Council members.

Surveillance cameras operating by year end
The City has received a federal grant to install video surveillance cameras and awarded a contract worth $316,000 to the Avrio Group to undertake the installation. The 11 cameras should running by the end of the year and more will be added over time. The cameras will broadcast to the Project Seahawk terminal in North Charleston. According to the P&C, cameras under the contract will go to surveillance around the Charleston Passenger terminal, Gadsden Green complex and Burke High School. High crime and busy areas will also be placed under surveillance sometime in the future.

The move was applauded by Council members and a number of citizens including presidents of some neighborhood associations. However, representatives of the ACLU expressed some concern about the potential for intrusion into citizens’ privacy. One said that cameras did not deter crime and only aided apprehension of the perpetrators. Police Chief Mullen said that he had met with the ACLU and addressed their concerns, though not to their total satisfaction. He also promised there would be no intrusion of privacy.

More officers on the street following a federal grant
Although not mentioned by the P&C, it seems appropriate to note here that the City was granted $3.04 million by the US Department of Justice to create 19 officer positions in the City police force. The grant is for a 3 year period and comes under the “Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) – American Recovery Act”. Chief Mullen said that hiring was under way. The police would be assigned to West Ashley (8) downtown peninsula (7), the Crime Prevention Squad (2) and to tourist trafficked areas (2).

We have expressed our concern about the growing number of Federal Grants and the impact on the federal deficit. However we won’t quibble with the receipt of the grant and the new hiring. It won’t be out of place and with the new surveillance equipment, Charleston should become a safer place.

And City to join County-led integrated dispatch service
Public safety should also be enhanced, at least within a few years by the decision of the City to join with the County and other municipalities in an integrated dispatch system it was planning. The Mayor announced the decision to join last night and said the decision was made after a thorough review of the planned system.

The decision was a surprise. The County asked the City to join the integrated effort a year or so ago and was to pay all of the costs after the first 2 years of operation. The City declined to join claiming that it was satisfied with its own system and by inference at least, thought that planned by the County was inferior. Some of us thought that the refusal to join was related more to the retention of power by the Mayor more than anything else. Certainly we questioned as did some Council members as to why the City was remaining aloof. After all the Mount Pleasant and North Charleston, presumably responsibly managed, had no qualms in joining.

We don’t know what changed the Mayor’s mind. Chief Mullen had no reservations when he spoke to Council last night. Maybe it was the tightening financial plight of the City with the prolonged national economic downturn. The Chief said that the city will bear 100% of the City’s share of costs in Year 1, 50% in year 2 and nothing thereafter. Seems a good deal to us, and the City will be moving into a state-of- the- art operation.

Chief Mullen highly praised
It was clearly Chief Mullen’s day in Council. And Council members and members of the public were not shy in expressing their satisfaction in the performance of the chief. It went beyond the measures mentioned above. It extended to the effort he had made to better the force, to engage citizens and the community at large, and the good will he had generated.

Term limits for Council members contrary to SC law, says the Mayor

We thought there might have been a livelier debate over term limits for Council members as proposed by Council member Mallard. Presently, Council members can serve an indefinite number of 4 year terms. Council member Mallard proposed that the number of terms be limited to only 3. But the wind was taken out of the proposal by the declaration of the Mayor that the City attorney opined that the proposal would not be allowed under State law. The same applied to the Council member’s proposal to reconstitute the numbers of members on the Commercial Corridor Design Review Board. City Attorney De Saussure spoke to Council and noted that it was the State Attorney General’s (AG) opinion also that such a move would not be allowed.

Despite the comment by the Mayor, some Council members spoke against term limits stating that voters had an opportunity every 4 years to show their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with an incumbent.

Council member Mallard seemed undaunted and noted that the City attorney had ignored the AG’s opinion in some cases and the Supreme Court had sided with the City. Why couldn’t the AG be wrong again? Mr. De Saussure noted that in these cases, he thought the AG was wrong. In the issue of term limits, he sided with the AG’s opinion.

Personally, we like the idea of term limits and said so. We also wonder why Council member Mallard did not include limiting the terms of the Mayor of Charleston. If there is an argument for limiting those of Council members it is ever so much stronger for the Mayor. Mayor Riley has been Mayor for over 30 years and built a considerable and probably unassailable power base. But we agree with one of the members of the public who said there is something wrong about incumbents defining their own term limits. We think that if there is to be a change, if should be only after a referendum.

City’s “green initiative” has some skeptics on Council

There was a lot of discussion over the City’s “green initiative” and Council member White took strong issue with the opinion of the Mayor. The starting point of the issue was an application for grant for $145,000 from the EPA. If successful, the City would pony up a matching $145,000 and the total $290,000 used to finance a contract with Serrafix, an environmental investment consultant. Some Council members wanted to know where the City’s match of $145,000 would come from. The Mayor gave no names but from private and charitable sources, he said.

But the issue was deeper than this for Council member White. The $145,000 grant and the $145,000 were to finance Phase 2 on the City’s “green initiative”. This in turn would lead to a final phase whereby citizens and corporations would be encouraged to make energy saving changes to dwellings and buildings. How these changes would be financed was open to debate but there was a suggestion that the City would in some way be involved – and that was not good. As another Council member pointed out, the City could end up with liens over citizen’s houses for amounts of say $2000 to $3000. There was also risk for the City if the debt were not paid. The City would not wish to foreclose on a house for such a small debt and indeed, courts were unlikely to give the City possession for such a small amount.

Council member White also claimed that the initiative had been tried in other cities and had failed. He thought the chance of success did not warrant the effort and declared his opposition to the grant application.

The Mayor noted that the initiative so far has cost the City nothing. The first phase cost $60,000 and was paid by the Coastal Conservation League. There would be no cost borne by the City in the second phase. It was worth undertaking the second phase to see the outcome. Any commitment by the City beyond the second phase 2 would need to come before Council

Council ultimately supported the Mayor, but there were three members who voted against the grant.

City Council meetings to be televised?

And finally there was Council member Gregorie’s request to consider televising City Council meetings. The Mayor said that the matter would be taken up by staff and discussed with appropriate television stations. It was noted the meeting of the North Charleston Council were televised.

We think that there is a lot be said for televising Council meetings. But we question how many people will spend time watching. Certainly they would watch when important issues are discussed – but at other times? How many would have switched on for yesterday’s 5 hours?

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