Wednesday, October 15, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

With the last couple of columns focusing on the Jasper County education situation, the phones and the email really lit up this week. Calls were especially heavy after our presentation to the Sun City Republican Club regarding the transparency and redistricting matters. Sun City folks, by and large, are well- educated people, and they understand that their current circumstances are closely related to their investments in a good education. The overwhelming consensus comment was that no child in America should have a substandard public education due to cronyism or politics.


We are working diligently to get three or four dates in Jasper County to roll out what we think might be some good, serviceable alternatives to the flawed plan for the redistricting of the Jasper School Board now on the table. Most of the meetings will involve Bobby Bowers, the state reapportionment guru, acting as a technical consultant. Some of our model plans will have fewer seats, some more. Some boundary lines will be moved to reflect population shifts.


A few things which any plan must consider will be not diluting any minority voting districts, per the Voting Rights Act. We will also keep intact any neighborhoods of common interest. Most importantly, the principle of “one person, one vote” will be closely observed. This means that one district should not have appreciably more voters than another. This is measured as deviation from the perfect distribution of voters. The current deviation is something like 62%, which is unacceptable.


There is no perfect plan, but what we hope to achieve is a Jasper County stakeholder’s plan. Within the previously stated criteria, I believe that given the opportunity to have their say, the local folks can come up with a better plan than can be formulated by one person in a room in Columbia. This is a time when having the people who will have to live with the outcome of any map or plan, be the people who express their preferences, with ample opportunity for comment and discussion. We will create a record of your likes and dislikes, how you think things should be organized, and with technical help from Mr. Bowers, arrive at a plan.


As you may remember, Judge Gergel has given the legislature until the first of March to pass an acceptable plan. Failing that, the court will decide. Politics being what it is, even if we don’t manage to pass a good plan by the deadline, we want to have a record of the desires of the stakeholders, which will be placed before the court. This process should be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It doesn’t get much simpler than that.


As you read this, the weeklong Historic Bluffton Arts and Seafood Festival is under way. It is jam packed with entertainment and family oriented activities, culminating in the Street Fest on Saturday and Sunday. This is an art fair with continuous live music at several stages around the Old Town.


Tonight, at the Rotary Community Center at Oscar Frazier Park, there is a performance by incredible Gullah storyteller and singer Louise Cohen. Also on the bill is noted author Patti Callahan Henry, who will speak on her latest New York Times best-selling novels set in Bluffton and Savannah. The performance and book signing will kick off at 6 p.m., cost $10 per person and is by reservation only. Call Mary at 843-815-2472 or 843-815-2474 for reservations. All proceeds go to the Waddell Mariculture Center.


And speaking of Waddell, don’t miss out on the 7th Annual Taste of Waddell coming up on November 9th at the Waddell Center. Call Capt. Dave Harter at 843-785-4106 or email daveh@hargray.com.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

For the last few months, we have been inundated with media coverage of alleged domestic violence committed by professional athletes, among others. As a sports fan, it’s so disappointed to see these gifted young millionaires acting in such a manner. This is especially so, because there are so many young men who idolize and emulate these athletes, and many feel they can do no wrong.


It is also a matter of deep concern for me that our state, so great in many ways, is in the grip of a domestic violence epidemic.


Just today, I got a most appreciated email from a Sun City friend, Nancy Berry, who forwarded a timely reminder that once again, Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse (CODA) will be holding their Race4Love on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14th. This is an important fund/awareness raiser for these good folks. Put it on your calendar. Also, go to their web site, www.codalowcountry.org, and take a look at what they do to help those in this awful situation, as well as their programs to prevent domestic violence. If you are like me, you will probably want to send them a donation whether you are a runner or not.


Another good friend, Jim Lee, is passing the leadership torch of the Sun City Republican Club, after two extremely productive years. I recently met with this group and was amazed at the turnout. There were folks there from all walks of life who were interested in hearing details of our Jasper County activities. There is a general optimism that when the voices of the stakeholders are truly heard, our Jasper neighbors will see big changes and big improvement.


One of the reasons that Jim’s meetings are always so successful is that he and his lovely wife always make everyone feel welcome, not to mention that there is also a seat for everyone, as well.


One of my legislative colleagues and friends is Representative Bill Taylor from Aiken. From time to time, we will work in concert on columns, as well as legislation. One of those pieces of legislation last session was the Ethics Reform Bill. This past June, this landmark bill, years in the making, was on its way to the governor’s desk to be signed into law. However, on the very last day of session, it died in the Senate for lack of a necessary final vote. It was a crushing disappointment.


Under intense pressure from your legislator and other members of leadership, the House continues to lead on ethics reform. The House Speaker Pro Tempore, Jay Lucas, in his role as acting Speaker of the House, appointed a 22 member Bi-Partisan House Ethics Reform Committee to review and strengthen the ethics legislation to be submitted next session, which starts the second Tuesday of January.


Representative Derham Cole, a Republican from Spartanburg, will chair the committee. The committee will be organized around three sub-committees: Campaign Finance; Enforcement and Investigation; and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).


I had a conversation with Acting Speaker Lucas, in which I strongly urged him to appoint my Beaufort County colleague, Weston Newton, to the committee. I was prepared to go to the mat on this one, but Jay agreed immediately. In fact, Weston had distinguished himself in the Judiciary Committee debates on this matter last session to the extent that he was also appointed as chairman of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Sub-committee.


How important is this? In the words of my friend, Jay Lucas: “This comprehensive reform effort is bigger than any single issue or any single lawmaker. At the end of the day, true ethics reform should ensure that all elected officials are held accountable and instill an unshakable public trust in our system of government.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

The traffic situation at the north end of the Buckwalter parkway, involving Berkeley Hall, St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, the fire station, and Eagle’s Point, seems to be nearing a solution. It is an imperfect solution, but immeasurably better than what is currently there. The traffic signal will vastly improve safety at the cost of some hindrance to traffic flow. In my view, this is a prudent and humane bargain.


Interestingly, this is pretty much the same solution that was hammered out six years ago, although the real genesis of the problem was many years earlier. Traffic planners usually agree that major arterial highways are more efficient with frontage roads to space out the access points, among other benefits. At that time, virtually no one wanted frontage roads. Property owners wanted to maximize value of their land. Developers wanted to reduce their land costs. The public didn’t like the tax implications and public officials at all levels could not envision the growth of Bluffton, although they talked about it all the time.


As a consequence, what was initially an inconvenience, eventually turned into a potential disaster. After six years of wrangling, the least bad option is now the best option, although far from optimal. The good news is that reasonable folks realized they simply had to compromise if there was going to be any improvement before the inevitable catastrophe.


As a parishioner of St. Gregory, I was more than passing familiar with the situation. Many times I have offered my good offices in an effort to break the logjam, to avoid expensive litigation, and to reduce the growing risk. Recently, the logjam began to break up. A more cooperative spirit was evident among the parties, which allowed your delegation to bring state resources to bear. Working together, we got it done.


As much as I appreciate the many positive emails and calls, as well as some less than positive calls, it was the softening of formerly rigid positions that led to this progress. While I was a part of the process, your local statehouse delegation, Senator Davis, Representative Newton and this legislator, always try to work as a team. Together, we get much more done if we cooperate, and work to minimize any differences we might have over the details. Might even be a lesson in there somewhere.


At the risk of stretching the comparison, the education situation in Jasper County did not begin with the reapportionment that created our current House districts two years ago. In truth, this is a problem of generations, not years. As more school parents and other residents and stakeholders have come to realize, without a good quality, basic education, our young people will not be prepared for the demands of work and citizenship. In my view, the ongoing efforts seemingly to reduce the public’s participation are misguided. The pathway to improvement is through greater public participation, toward a fuller understanding that we are all stakeholders in the success of these children.


Just this week, your delegation was an integral part of the mediation mandated by Judge Gergel regarding the ACLU suit and the upcoming school board redistricting. I am confident that an essential feature of this process will be a dramatic expansion of the public’s role, not only at the school board, but county council, as well as at our delegation meetings.


Friends, whether it is the placement of a controversial traffic signal, or drawing the lines of voting districts, we must talk with one another in good faith. We must understand that compromise is not surrender; it is the beginning of the way forward. The more folks with open minds and open hearts that are charged with a task, no matter how complex or difficult, the more likely we are to succeed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

I was expecting a few extra calls this week after the recent Jasper county events. As it turned out, my expectations were entirely too modest. There were a ton of calls and emails, as well as lots of visitors to the office and well-wishers around town. A good many people, especially those who saw the various videos of the event, thought it was funny, and I guess it was, in a kind of farcical way. The fact is that it trained a spotlight on what we had been hearing from many parents and other residents concerning a lack of basic transparency in the Jasper School Board.


I think it also emphasized the fact that public meetings are for the benefit of the public, and not for the folks on the dais. The fact of using law enforcement resources to bodily remove members of the public from public meetings is kind of scary, not to mention embarrassing for those sheriff’s deputies. They knew their job was catching bad guys, not suppressing dissent at public meetings. In truth, they were very kind, almost apologetic, during the whole thing.


You know, sometimes it takes a catalyzing event such as this to prompt the changes to our system that everyone knows need to happen. That said, when the fellows with the firearms at their sides start ejecting citizens who clap for ideas unappreciated by the chairperson of any public meeting, we are almost inviting unintended and usually untoward events.


Last week, I received the largest and most delicious fruit basket ever. It was from the young woman whom Representative Newton and I rose to support at the abovementioned meeting. She was obviously shaken by the incident, but her gift to this representative was as tasty as it was unexpected. I will certainly report it on my ethics forms, as it was a huge and elaborate presentation. As much as I appreciate the sentiment, we were there to do the jobs we were elected to do. Doing the right thing doesn’t require compensation, but to my mind, it was an act of grateful sweetness, and I was touched.


The bulk of your delegation rode to Columbia together for a meeting last week. We discussed our strategy for the mediation, which will be to encourage as much public participation as possible. We will make a few proposals, but hope that the preponderance of ideas will come from the public. I have faith that the Jasper county citizenry, aware of the importance of education as the way for their children to advance in the world, will demand an end to the current regime. If I am disappointed, I will still hold whoever is elected to current standards of electoral propriety.


In statehouse matters, I have been appointed to the certificate of need task force. My mail is already heavy with hospital and clinic correspondence. I have urged the new speaker, my friend Jay Lucas, to also appoint Representative Weston Newton to both the ethics and Department of Transportation (DOT) task forces. Weston has experience and skills that make him essential to these committees.


Don’t forget the Friends of the Bluffton Dog Park event, Saturday, October 11, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Promenade in Old Town Bluffton. For more information call Cheryl Rauch at either 815-2333 or 540- 9988.


Also, the 7th Annual Friends of Waddell fundraising event will be Sunday, 9 November, from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Waddell headquarters on the high bluff at the end of Sawmill Creek Road in Greater Bluffton. This is a very popular event, largely owing to the fact that Chef Mike Sigler will be doing many of his signature dishes of fresh, local seafood. For more information and to make reservations, call my buddy Dave Harter at 785-4106 or email daveh@hargray.com.