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County Council, January 2

Council member Pryor reelected to Chair
Land swap deal moves ahead but with less support
Warwick Jones

Predictably, the first item on the agenda for last night’s special Council meeting was election of the Chair. In a straightforward vote, Council member Pryor was returned to the position with 7 votes for, one opposed and one abstention. Council member Summey was reelected to the Vice Chair with 8 votes for and one abstention.

Obviously, Council member Pryor was not the top choice of Council members Qualey and Schweers who voted against and abstained respectively. But we suspect that he was not the top choice of one or two of those who voted for him. But they recognized that their likely nominees would fail to gain sufficient support.

This will be the sixth consecutive year that Council member Pryor serves as Chairman of Council. Although he voted in favor of Council member Pryor, Council member Rawl is clearly uncomfortable about the re-election. His discomfort however is related to the length of tenure rather than ability. The Council member stated last night he will put the issue of term limits for the Chair on a future agenda of the Administration Policy/Rules Committee (APRC). Council member Rawl is the Chair of the Committee.

Council member Rawl indicated his intention to raise the issue of term limits for the Chair after he was asked by Chairman Pryor to consider an amendment to present policy. Chairman Pryor acknowledged the altercation with Council member Condon at the last meeting over her inability to make nominations to the Library Board. Presumably on reflection, he thought that all members of Council should be able to discuss and vote on appointments to boards and commissions, and not necessarily be bound to the vote of the APRC. In consequence, he made the request of Council member Rawl that his Committee consider the issue. However, Chairman Pryor was emphatic that he wanted this change to apply only to appointments and not other issues before committees.

The issue of all Council members being able to vote on committee issues has been heated over the last few years and particularly in relation to County Attorney Dawson’s position as head of Solid Waste and remuneration beyond that of the Attorney position. The role of Attorney Dawson in Solid Waste is again to be discussed. Council member Qualey, a consistent critic of Attorney Dawson’s status asked that the Attorney’s role in Solid Waste be put on the agenda of a future meeting. Chairman Pryor acceded.

We thought it was an interesting but related aside that came out of a discussion on a new contract for the Material Recycling Facility (MRF). In the discussion on this item, some Council members expected Attorney Dawson to assist in supervision of the contract. This stirred Council member Darby who reminded Council that it had agreed that Attorney Dawson would have no responsibility (and presumably no remuneration) for Solid Waste beginning this year. Why was his retention in Solid Waste being reconsidered, he asked in surprise? Council member Summey responded that there had been no such agreement by Council. Council member Darby was confusing what might have been agreed to “in there” signaling the room off the Council chamber where executive sessions are held. But no agreement had been reached in a regular Council session, he said.

We don’t have the recall over past Council sessions and no knowledge as to what was agreed in past executive sessions. But we do know that if any decision is made in an executive session it needs to be disclosed at the Council meeting and voted on. So we are wondering.

Other items discussed at last night’s meetings were a new contract for the running of the recycling facility, and the land swap relating to the County’s property on Morrison Drive. Both items had something in common – there was no documentation on either in the public information package. And both items were discussed in the near 90 minute executive session that preceded Council’s deliberations

Before Council was a proposal to enter a contract with Sonoco (not the major oil company but a private group) to run the MRF facility. Sonoco would replace the existing contractor and presumably costs would fall in consequence. It seems that most Council members were happy with the proposal except Council member Summey. He did not like the 10 year commitment the Country was making. He reminded Council of some long term contracts it had made, and with sad results. He did not want history to repeat itself. Can Council seek a contract over a shorter time frame?

After a discussion that went well beyond the contract and covered the difficulty of procuring a new site for the recycling facility and the role of County Attorney Dawson, the Finance Committee asked staff to discuss with the contractor the possibility of shorter terms and determine the resultant cost to the County. Only Council Qualey voted against the motion.

There was nothing new revealed about the land swap for that owned by the County on Morrison Drive. But there was something new – there were now 3 Council members opposed to the swap. At the last meeting of Council, only Council member Qualey opposed the swap. Then, as he did last night, he called for more transparency and a need to provide an opportunity to other interested developers. He did not question the good faith of Council or staff. But he noted correctly that property on Morrison Drive was highly sought. By inference at least, he asked as to how the Council could be sure that it was getting the best deal. Council members Sass and Johnson last night agreed with him, the latter member making the point, with a smile on her face, that agreement with him was a rare occurrence for her.

More details of the contract will be given before the Council meeting on Tuesday when we believe a final vote will be taken and possibly a deal finalized. As we noted on our report on the previous meeting, we think the concerns of Council member Qualey are valid. Maybe the staff has negotiated a good deal, and maybe it is a unique opportunity for the County to get new and larger buildings for the Disability Court, EMS and others. But maybe it isn’t. We don’t know the value that has been placed on the Morrison Drive property. But the property is very large and clearly valuable. Past sale prices may be a base but they are not a certain key to future prices. The sale of a property that occurred last week say, may not necessarily define the sale price of the next property. Commercial property is strongly sought presently, and that along Morrison Drive, one of the major roads into the City of Charleston particularly sought. The economy of Charleston is strong and has pushed up commercial values. Most predictions are for further improvements in the local economy. We expect commercial values will continue rising. So why the rush to sell?

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