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City Council, March 23

Members in a feisty mood – again
City looking to improve Code enforcement
Marc Knapp

Members again were in a feisty mood at yesterday’s Council meeting. Some complained loudly about the tardiness of staff in presenting them with data on issues on which they were expect to vote. And then a majority defied the Mayor and voted to defer an application for a grant to finance a controversial Green Plan initiative. Accompanying this was a question about the creation of “ad hoc” committees by the Mayor. Why weren’t issues addressed by existing committees? Creating new committees may breach City Code, Council member Gregorie suggested.

We have said many things about Mayor Riley. But we can never say he lacks tenacity. He failed to get Council to support him for a grant application in the Ways and Means but one way or another was able to get his way at the end of the Council meeting.

Issue over a grant to study a Green Plan initiative
The issue over applying for a $250,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to implement a Green Plan initiative looked very dead at the close of the Ways and Means meeting. Staff said that the application had to be submitted immediately otherwise the opportunity was likely lost. The money was to be used “for operation expenses, legal consultation, marketing, and energy efficiency program enhancements for a local energy efficiency partnership”.

The Mayor said that the program in its latter stages could lead to City sponsored financing for business and homeowners to weatherize structures, and to energy savings. The latter would also help SCE&G by lessening the need to build new electricity generating capacity. The initiative would also assist employment in the City. The Mayor also said that even if the grant were made, there was no commitment on the part of the City, to accept it, or to any part of the plan. He argued that these things could only occur if the City Council approved them.

Concern over obligations
This was not enough for Council member White, and for the majority of Council members. They were concerned there was a commitment implied by making the application. Council member White was opposed to the banking role the City would assume in supporting the initiative. We also suspect that he and other Council members were peeved about the short notice they were given to make a decision on the grant. After considerable debate, Council members White, Mallard, Lewis, Riegel, Seekings, Alexander and Hallman successfully voted in favor of a deferral, with others voting against.

A long break between meetings
We wondered why there was a long break between the end of the Ways and Means meeting and the beginning of the Council meeting. It was probably explained at the end of the latter when the Mayor proposed again that an application should be made for the Rockefeller grant but subject to a condition. He then “ad libbed” the very lengthy condition. Council member Hallman asked him to repeat the condition and there was an even lengthier response. We don’t envy the Clerk of Council’s task of transcription, but our interpretation is that nothing will be done and no commitment made by any City committee to advance the weatherization/efficiency program without Council’s approval.

Council votes unanimously in favor
Council Member White said he would support the amendment but it could not be implied that he supported the weatherization/efficiency initiative. Council voted unanimously for the amendment. And despite the lengthiness off the Mayor’s motion, we don’t find it much different to what he proposed before the first vote. But presumably some Council members thought otherwise. What did the Mayor say between the meetings?

More on minutes and televising
As a follow up to earlier meetings, the Mayor sent Council members a letter relating to requests for more timely minutes of meetings, and a suggestion in relation to televising Council meetings. The letter was not in the documents available for the public. Council was to discuss it last night but because of the long meeting, agreed to discuss it at a future meeting. However the Mayor did say that he proposed that the Minutes of the Ways and Means meetings are summarized. He noted that summaries were the practice of other entities in the State. But in keeping with the historic nature of Charleston, the minutes of Council meetings should be kept verbatim, he said.

The Mayor argued at the last Council meeting that shortage of staff caused the lack of timeliness in the delivery of minutes. However, he had made provision to fill the one person vacancy in the Clerk’s office and by implication, minutes would be received by Council more promptly in future.

In the letter, the Mayor also said that the Information Technology (IT) Department has told him that a voice recognition system to handle all of the speakers at a Council meeting was not feasible. So such a system to obtain more timely minutes as suggested at the last Council meeting was not an option.

As for televising, the IT Department had identified two options which would be presented to Council in detail.

City taking a closer look at Code enforcement
It is encouraging. It is a long time since we have heard a report for the Public Safety Committee though our recollection may be impaired. Council Member Wilson is the Chair and made her report last night and promised quarterly reports in future.

There were a number of initiatives in the Police and Fire departments and in other areas. We found the most interesting was that relating to Code enforcement undertaken by the Police Department.

A spokesperson for the Police Department made a presentation and noted many shortcomings in the ordinances and their enforcement. She noted the overlap of departmental responsibility, and the failure or inability of the City to deal with some complaints. These issues were to be addressed and she expected that the improved and amended codes would also draw more on citizens.

It was late in the evening and most Council members probably were anxious to depart. So there was little discussion of Council member Wilson’s report. It was applauded by some Council members though Council member Gregorie suggested that the proposed reporting of the Committee on a quarterly basis was not frequent enough considering the importance of the Police and Fire departments. Council member Wilson made no commitment to more frequent reporting but we think she said that important issues would be brought before Council as they occur.

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