The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance

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County Council, December 19

Fractious meetings
Issues over land swap and appointments
Warwick Jones

There was little Christmas cheer at last night’s meetings. The Administration/Policy Rules Committee and Planning Public Works Committee meetings went without incident. But things heated up at the conclusions of the Finance Committee and Council meetings.

Council member Qualey was the first to signal trouble. He was the first to return to the Council Chamber after a near one hour long Executive Session, and he was alone. He wore an expression of disbelief and frustration. It was some minutes before other Council members returned and the ensuing discussion revealed the cause of the Council member’s grief.

The County has received a proposal from a developer that it swap the land and property it owns on Morrison Drive and which houses the Disability Court, for another but yet unnamed property. As part of the deal, the developer would construct a courthouse and also an Emergency Services building. The item was on the agenda of the last Finance Committee meeting but a vote was deferred to allow more study of the issue. Council member Qualey claimed that the deal was still not fully understood by Council, that insufficient time had been given for proper consideration and that an opportunity to make proposals should be given to other developers. Interestingly, there was no documentation on the issue in the public information package.

We thought the Council member Qualey had a point on all the issues. In our opinion, the mood of Council was to agree to the commitment at the beginning of discussion. Council member Schweers thought that the final agreement still had to come before Council but on re-reading the motion, the Finance Committee was actually binding itself to an agreement. This did not sit well with Council member Condon and presumably others. The original motion was amended to allow Council to defer a final say until the next meeting.

Staff supported the swap and estimated that the construction of a new courthouse and EMS building would cost $17.1 million. Under the land swap deal, the County would get the two new buildings for much less. We are attempting to get more details of what was proposed.(###See response below)

Council member Condon asked how it was that a developer could construct these buildings so much cheaper than the County. Staff responded that I was not a matter of efficiency. It was that the County needed to go through proscribed processes that added to time and cost. The developer did not have similar restraints.

Council member Rawl supported the agreement and told Council that the developer did not have unlimited time. He had to make agreements with other parties that could not be placed on hold indefinitely

Herewith the motion that was approved last night with only Council members Sass and Qualey opposed.

Staff was authorized to negotiate a contract which will be brought back to Council for final approval which will allow for the exchange of the County owned property located at 995 Morrison Drive for properties and facilities deemed suitable by the County with the understanding that:

A portion of the property received in this exchange shall be deeded to the Disabilities Board for their use, with a Reverter Clause, stating that if the property is no longer used for the Disabilities Board then the property would revert back to Charleston County.

Value received by the County shall be equal to or above the appraised value of 995 Morrison and that it is deemed suitable by the County.

Property exchanges to occur after all facilities are completed to the satisfaction of the County and all legal matters are approved by the County Attorney’s office.

“It’s not right, it’s not right”, Council member Qualey lamented. “It’s fine not to sell outright. Why not put out a Request for Proposals indicating a willingness to swap"?

The conclusion of the Finance Committee meeting may have been heated, but flames erupted at the end of the Council meeting. Council Member Condon caught fire when Chairman Pryor denied her the opportunity to nominate candidates to serve on the Board of Library Trustees. We think the Council member over reacted but at the same time, we think she was right to think there was injustice. And if indeed the Chair’s decision conformed to Council Rules, we think it would have been easy for the Chair to arrange some accommodation.

We’ll concede that appointments to the Board of Library Trustees are not duties ranking high in importance for the Council. But the issue last night was part of a broader issue that has been dogging Council for some years now – the rights of Council members to vote on issues that come before Committees on which they do not serve.

The Administration Policy/Rules Committee earlier had voted on a number of appointments to the Library Board. There were more candidates than vacancies and Council member Condon, who was not a member of the Committee, indicated her support for some of those not selected by the Finance Committee. Chairman Pryor told her that she could nominate whom she liked when it came before the Council. The Council member acquiesced.

But at the Council meeting, Council member Condon was thwarted. When the appointments came before Council, Council member Summey moved that the Committee’s recommendation be accepted. Understandably, Council member Condon asked what was going on. What about her ability to make nominations? Tough, said Chairman Pryor, though using many more words. He stated there was a motion on the floor and it had to be dealt with before anything else. County Attorney Dawson, when questioned, conceded that it had been the past practice to allow nominations from Council members but according to Council rules, any motion that was made and seconded had to be dealt with first.

We thought that Council member Summey offered to withdraw his motion but nothing seemed to alter the confrontation between Council member Condon and Chairman Pryor. If indeed Council member Summey did withdraw his motion, Council member Condon could have made her nomination and further confrontation avoided. But it didn’t happen.

Council member Condon was clearly more than chagrined by the turn of events. She took the opportunity to speak at length on the issue when the Chairman invited Council members to make closing remarks. The Chairman called it a “rant” and Council member Summey rose and left the chamber in conspicuous disapproval of what she was saying. It probably was a “rant’, but in our view, she had a right to be upset, or even outraged.

Perhaps the most important item on last night’s Finance Committee agenda was approved with only Council member Qualey in dissent. Staff has been considering proposals from interested vendors to provide, install and maintain a new Public Safety System (PSS). Similar to that of Consolidated Dispatch, the new system will allow the connection of other agencies and jurisdiction. It was noted last night that the major municipalities of the County fully participated in defining the needs of such a system.

The staff was authorized to begin negotiations with one of the vendors and prepare a contract.

The following is a slightly edited response from the County to our request on Friday for more information and corrections to our commentary above on the potential land swap.

No developer ever approached the County to propose the swap in question. The developer first approached the County to seek to lease or purchase a portion of its property for parking for its project across the street. The County declined. The developer then changed its offer to a purchase of the entire parcel. Again, the offer was declined as the property was not for sale—primarily because the County did not presently have the capital resources available to find and build facilities to replicate the uses currently on the property, namely, two Magistrates, operations of the Charleston County Board of Disabilities and Special Needs, and warehousing for county facilities.

The developer was told if it would find properties for these relocations, build all of these facilities to the County’s specifications and approvals, at its cost, staff would consider taking the proposal to Council.

The County waited a year while the developer looked for for suitable locations. Several locations were rejected. But ultimately two proposed sites were acceptable. Staff suggested that the developer build a two-courtroom magistrate’s facility, and include the relocation of the EMS station which is currently located in the Medical University parking garage.

Staff indicated that the magistrates and the EMS staff were thrilled with the proposal. This site will be a much, much better location from which to serve medical emergency calls for that area.

So, contrary to any assertion that staff accepted the first idea to come through the door, it has spent many hours crafting a proposal which would tremendously benefit the County, which we have no other way of accomplishing.

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