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City Council, June 20

Mayor refutes racial bias in City’s police force
Council gives second reading to BAR and Historic District ordinances
Marc Knapp

On the issue of racial bias in the City’s police force, Mayor Tecklenberg last night acted mayoral. And it was about time. Claims of bias were made by a lot of folk over the last two months and particularly by those associated with the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM). But in our opinion, the Mayor effectively refuted these claims last night in a long, emotional and fact studded speech. It was a speech that if given a month or so ago, would have destroyed the arguments of the critics and possibly avoided the resignation of Chief Mullen.

The issue came to a head last night with the resolution before Council to retain a specialist firm to undertake an audit of the City’s police force actions. The resolution was prepared by Council member Lewis and supported by three of the other four black Council members. It was also supported by members of CAJM. The Council members and CAJM disputed the ability of Novak Consulting Group, retained by the City to undertake an audit of all operations, to ably and reliably audit the actions of the police. They wanted a specialist firm retained. They didn’t succeed. Council voted 7 to 5 against the resolution. Those in favor were Council members Lewis, Mitchell, Waring, Gregorie and Wagner. Council member Williams, who is also black, voted against the resolution.

Mayor Tecklenberg early in his speech said that “the only racial bias was against people who break the law. It was the policy of the City to treat all fairly. Public Safety in the No 1 job of the Police Department – to keep people safe and preserve liberty”. (He didn’t specifically mention what the police were doing but essentially they were stopping vehicles with black drivers and in crime-prone areas. Vehicles were often searched, usually for drugs. The Mayor didn’t say but we suspect everybody knows that black folk, particularly youth, account for a disproportionate amount of crime).

The Mayor went on to cite the success of the police in reducing both violent and non-violent crime, down 6% and 3% respectively though we're unsure as to what the time frame was. And as far as complaints about police actions at traffic stops, they had fallen to 17 in 2015, 15 in 2016, and one this year so far.

The Mayor spent a lot of time talking about the efforts of the police to engage the community and particularly through the “Illumination” program. In the words of the Mayor and others, this was a very successful program that helped the City’s youth. He also spoke of the adoption of best practices within the department, an adoption spearheaded by Chief Mullen and which had won the department national accolades.

There were harsh words for CAJM. The mayor deplored the lack of civility, and the misrepresentations. He had met with CAJM folk but it seemed impossible to have meaningful dialogue. He defended and praised both the City Police Department and Chief Mullen, and deplored the unfair criticism that they had endured.

Finally, he asked Council to reject the resolution before it and to allow Novak to do the audit. But he did not close the door on another audit. Another firm can be retained as a subcontractor to Novak.
No Council member rose to speak at the conclusion of the Mayor’s speech. The audience, largely CAJM members, had been particularly vocal and hostile during its length. At the conclusion and after the vote, there was silence and it seemed to me, the CAJM supporters left the chamber in a subdued, perhaps chastened, manner.

We should also note that CAJM speakers were numerous in Citizens Participation. But there were also quite a few speakers who loudly praised Chief Mullen and all the good done for the community. And the applause was from black folk as well.

There was silence at the end of the Mayor’s speech and the vote, but it didn’t last long. Council member Waring was not happy and for 20 minutes, he criticized the Mayor, the procurement process, the lack of transparency, the lack of diversity amongst procurement committee members, and the need to include the new police chief in the audit process. He was joined by Council member Gregorie, and later Council member Lewis who criticized two Council members, unnamed, who interfered in the process of placing the resolution on the agenda.

The Mayor responded that he followed the established procurement policy of the City and acknowledged that it could be improved. He would create a committee to look at making changes and asked Council member Waring to be the Chair. The offer was accepted.

Council gave unanimous approval to the ordinances amending the zoning map relating to the old and historic districts of the City, and to the powers of the Board of Architectural Review (BAR). The ordinances were given their first reading in February this year. It was the second reading last night and the ordinances incorporated suggestions from the public, preservation groups and Council members.

Nearly every Council member and many citizens at the Public Hearing praised the amendments but noted the need for further changes. Council member Seekings made the motion for approval but that the third reading should be deferred until August and that all other proposed changes and corrections should be submitted to staff 2 weeks before the third reading.

It would be difficult to describe all the changes, and there were many. Importantly, building heights will be defined in stories and not in feet, heights will be no more than 2 times the width of a building, the overall character and nature of a building will be compatible with those surrounding. Council members and staff spoke of more predictability in zoning but still some degree of flexibility for BAR determinations. Council members applauded the suggestion of Mr. John Darby of the Beach Company. He suggested that there should be an alternative for an appeal against a BAR decision rather than to the Circuit Court. Litigation is expensive and unaffordable to many, he said. There were also some changes proposed to qualifications of BAR members.

Members of the public, Council members and the Mayor all commented on the importance of the BAR and its role in preserving the character of the historic districts. We think the amended ordinance, after the third reading, will serve the City well.