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City Council, April 27

City to compensate carriage companies despite neighborhood objections
Council overrides Mayor on Fair Housing Ordinance
Marc Knapp

Some weeks ago, we suggested that the relationship between the Mayor and Council members had reached an inflection point. Council was no longer a rubber stamp of the Mayor's policies but had found its own and independent voice. Subsequent meetings and certainly last night’s reinforced this observation.

There were two important issues before Council last night- to allow the horse carriage companies to make up time lost when operations were closed down during the Blue Angels’ performance, and a move to strengthen the City’s Fair Housing ordinance. The horse carriage issue was complex and it can be argued that no ordinance would have been before Council if the Mayor had his way early in the issue. But there was nothing complex, except in the understanding of the ordinance, about the Fair Housing issue. Council voted 7 to 5 in favor with the Mayor adamantly opposed.

As we said in an earlier note, we welcome the independence of Council. And we also welcome the seemingly greater willingness of the Administration to listen to citizens’ comments. But having said that, we suspect some decisions have been shaped not by the facts, but the desire to give the Mayor a “bloody nose”. Scoring off the Mayor who has held Council in thrall for many years may seem a fun sport. But it does not make for good government. Issues should be judged in good faith and on the facts.

On the Horse Carriage issue, viewers may recall that the Traffic and Transportation Committee (T&TC) voted the week before the Blue Angels’ performance to allow the carriage companies to make “passenger free tours” during the practice flights of the Blue Angels on the Thursday before the weekend show. If there were no incidents, the carriage companies would be allowed to operate during the hours of the show over the weekend. The Mayor as a member of the T&TC (which consists of the Mayor and 4 Council members) opposed this and wanted no tours during the performance.

At the subsequent Council meeting, the Mayor sought approval to request the T&TC to change its decision. He cited the risk of horses being spooked by the noise of the aircraft and the possibility of injuries, and the liability of the City should there be injuries. He suggested that the carriage companies be offered the opportunity to make up time that was lost by extending the hours of operation in some period in the future. Council supported him though the vote was not unanimous.

At subsequent meetings of the T&TC and the carriage companies, the latter agreed to take their carriages off the street during the Blue Angel show. But the carriage companies wanted compensation. They made three suggestions – 1) Payment of $120,000. 2) Extend operations for an extra hour every day during April 2011, and 3) Extend operations 13 hours, the estimated time lost over the 3 days. The TT&C agreed to 2).

Council last night voted to endorse the deal made by the TT&C. But it did so over the objections of the neighborhoods through which the carriages travel. Several citizens rose in Citizen’s Participation to protest against any compensation. It was a precedent for further claims from the carriage companies and others. One speaker represented the City’s Neighborhood Consortium and noted that its members voted with one exceptionsto oppose any compensation. He and others said that the neighborhoods were not consulted about any extension of carriage tour hours. It was the citizens who were being inconvenienced. And the cessation of operations during such things as the Blue Angels’ performance was a “cost of doing business”. King Street retailers did not seek or get compensation when business was impacted by street closures. Citizens received no compensation when streets were closed for bridge runs, tours, etc. These views were also expressed by a number of neighborhood association presidents.

There certainly was some sympathy for the neighborhoods and the Mayor even suggested that the City had acted wrongly in the issue. He promised that this was not a precedent and that citizens would be consulted should future and similar issues arise. But the deal had been struck and it would be bad for the City to renege on its promise to the carriage companies. All agreed except Council members Alexander and White who sought a deferral.

What wasn’t mentioned last night was a particular passage in the City ordinance that has some relevance, in our opinion.
Article V. Division 1 Transportation of Animal drawn vehicles Sec.29-202 (5)
City Council further finds that the operation of animal drawn vehicles on the public streets is a privilege and not a right and such operation is for the benefit of the public

Unfortunately, the views of the public were never sought!

A new Fair Housing Ordinance
City Council member Gregorie was the champion of the proposed amendments to the City’s code “the purpose of which is to adopt a City of Charleston Fair Housing Act which is substantially equivalent to the Federal Fair Housing Act”. He stated that the City’s ordinance was inadequate and did not allow adequate enforcement. “The status quo had raped the community” he said referring to lending practices. And as Council member Alexander succinctly put it, “the state and Federal authorities had done a crappy job” and the City was not doing its job.

The Mayor at the beginning of the discussion indicated his opposition. He said that the adoption of the ordinance and the subsequent receipt of HUD funding that followed the implementation of such an ordinance would oblige the City to spend some $300,000 to $500,000 in setting up a bureau to administer the ordinance. The task was really for State of Federal authorities and the City should replicate there efforts. HUD funds were put to better use in providing affordable housing.

After that it became gray- at least for us. Council member Gregorie was once director of HUD’s Columbia office. He clearly knows what he is talking about when it comes to housing - at least it seemed that way. We were lost in a mass of acronyms, figures and names that meant little. He strongly, actually very strongly, disputed the figures supplied by the Mayor as to the cost, suggesting it would be much less. The Head of the City’s Housing Department defended the veracity of the figures quoted by the Administration and noted the sources of these figures.

Council member Lewis strongly supported Council member Gregorie and lambasted the Mayor for his dissembling. The Council member is Chair of the Community Development Committee and exclaimed that he did not want to see the issue before his Committee again. He wanted a straight up and down vote tonight!

He eventually got it. And the ordinance amendment was approved 8-5. Those opposed were the Mayor, Council members Wilson, White, Hallman and Riegel.

Who is right? One is tempted to say the issue was determined along racial lines with the African American members voting as a bloc. And their support was understandable. It is the African American community that suffers most from predatory lending and discrimination. But the members were joined by Council members Alexander, Seekings and Mallard and without their vote, the ordinance amendment would not have passed.

And the alleged injustices? Will the attempt to right them cost $50,000 or $500,000? We’re inclined to think it will be closer to the latter than the former figure. It will be a heavy burden on the City in today’s harsh fiscal conditions. Maybe HUD will pony up some more funds but as the Mayor insinuated, the City may have to take funds from future HUD grants that might have gone to Affordable Housing. Too bad!

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