Wednesday, August 20, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

This is the third in a series of columns on the education difficulties currently roiling the political waters in Jasper County. Again, I thank all those who called or emailed with comments, suggestions, or additional information. This is obviously an important matter and I am pleased that it is being treated as such.

In the previous two columns, I suggested there is a lack of transparency in the way that the school board and the school district seem to conduct business. With the metrics used to judge the effectiveness of the school district continuing to falter, parents and local residents needed some answers. With confidence in their legislative delegation, the parents and concerned residents began to attend our meetings in hopes of gaining some insight into the persistent failure of the school district or the board to improve educational outcomes.

Last week in this space, there was a discussion of a plan to redraw the school board districts. The current plan was the result of a “friendly settlement” of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU. The redrawn map was included in a bill delivered by Sen. Clementa Pinckney to the House in the waning days of the last session. After viewing the plan, Rep. Weston Newton and I consulted with both the Attorney General and the Speaker of the House as to what might be done to get a less gerrymandered, less politicized map.

The AG declined to directly intervene but he did submit an amicus brief to the court. The “friend of the court” memorandum stated that the customary way to reapportion the districts was a legislative process unless it was determined the redraw fell short of the “one man, one vote” federal standard. Additionally, the SC Constitution calls for the legislature to provide for public education. However, if the court decides to redraw the lines, the brief urges that certain principles be respected. Among those principles are: a bias toward maintaining “recognized communities of interest” as well as upholding, where possible, political or geographical boundaries.

The Speaker indicated he would try to intervene in the suit to return the task to the legislature, but failing that, for the judicial process to include appropriate public input. This makes sense to me, as the cure for a lack of transparency should not be a redraw completely void of public participation. Obviously, this matter is still evolving. One thing that will not change is that the majority of the Jasper delegation will strongly seek the maximum public involvement in this important realignment. Personally, the whole thing just smells bad.

As to the reasons for the FBI and IRS investigations, I need to stand by and wait for the investigation reports. I have heard all manner of accusations and received information, which I’m certain will be part of any thorough investigation. However, with the feeling running so high, I believe we need to let the proper authorities sort it out. One thing I want to say is that Jasper County Council has been unfailingly helpful and cooperative during this entire affair.

There is one likely bit of fallout from all this. When the facts are on the table, everyone will see why it is so important that the public’s business be handled in public. This should give impetus for a more serious legislative look at our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In truth, I have not always agreed with the more aggressive expansion of FOIA, but this recent experience has convinced me that we need a better, more effective law.

Next week, preparation for next year’s session and more good economic news for District 118.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

I want to thank all of you who called and emailed concerning my first installment of several columns focusing on education in Jasper County. There was general agreement among the callers that problems with the school board and school district were a significant reason why Jasper has not advanced economically. Today, I want to continue with my analysis, as well as suggesting that a lack of transparency in both the board and the district contribute strongly to thwarting the will of the great number of parents and other stakeholders who wish to see this area prosper and grow.

It is no secret that increases in population and the distribution of that population in Jasper County has created an urgent need to redraw the voting districts of the school board. With little to show for efforts to improve the measurable outcomes in local education, parents and other concerned residents want answers from the leadership, both the superintendent of education and those who hired and supervise her and her administration. The lack of coherent communication from these leaders has led to a situation where the delegation meetings have become something of a sounding board for those stakeholders who want to know why things are not improving, even as budgets have increased.

Interestingly, there was a bill brought over to the House from Senator Clementa Pinckney in the last days before the adjournment of the just completed session of the General Assembly. The Pinckney bill would have redrawn the Jasper County School Districts. After a close examination of the redistricting plan presented by Sen. Pinckney, the rest of the delegation, including myself, Rep. Weston Newton, and Rep. Bill Bowers, agreed it was not a credible attempt at redistricting, but a political document designed to protect certain incumbents and distress others. South Carolina is known for gerrymandering, but this bill was almost a caricature of geographic manipulation.

As the content of the bill became known, we in the delegation were contacted by school board members, county councilmen and women, as well as a strong contingent of parents and education supporters. They were alarmed and amazed at the brazen attempt to manipulate the system for the benefit of a few and to the detriment of many. Greatest among a host of problems with the bill was that it allowed a couple of folks in a room in Columbia to redraw the district map with absolutely no input from the school parents and other stakeholders. It was the exact opposite of transparency.

In light of the above, the Jasper County House delegation went to the speaker and asked that the House intervene immediately so this Pinckney bill would not be carried forward. We also created a shell bill that would be available to be carried forward to the next session and possibly be a vehicle for a new plan that would reflect the will of the majority of parents and other stakeholders. It should also be remembered that there are four or five ways that a proper redraw can be done, including, but not limited to, a legislative process. The important thing, in my view, is that we make absolutely certain that this is not one of those closed-door deals that cuts the people out of the process.

Next week, I will finish up with this discussion as well as have a few comments about the ACLU suit, and what we should make of it. I will also discuss, as much as can be said, some of the reasons why the FBI, IRS and SLED are all camped out in Jasper County. This is such an important issue, not simply on the merits of redrawing voting districts, but who government works for, and why we need to protect the rights of people to know and understand what is being done in their name.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

I want to thank all the folks stopping by and checking out the new businesses. We are gratified and somewhat amazed at the surge of commerce in Bluffton and the Lowcountry. We are working diligently to improve the economic situation in Jasper County as well. However, before we can expect great improvement on the economic front, we must improve education in Jasper. I promised an education column, but this is likely to be a series of columns, at least two and probably three. The issue is large and complex, and there are matters afoot that require some background.

Since becoming chairman of the Jasper delegation, the one thing that has impressed me most is the number of parents and other residents who consistently show up at our delegation meetings. Regardless of our agenda, they want to talk about education. They want to know why their children are not getting the education their tax dollars are paying for. They fully understand that education is the key to good jobs, and good jobs supports stable and prosperous families. Stable families are the foundation of solid communities, which, in turn, make it more likely that other such families will join the community. This is the beginning of a virtuous cycle such as we are seeing in a number of places around the state, such as Bluffton.

The entity charged with hiring and supervising the leaders of the local education effort is the Jasper School Board. Although elected by the folks for four-year terms, some members of the board are less than forthcoming about how they decided to hire certain individuals. They are also not happy to discuss the criteria by which they evaluate the success or lack thereof regarding the leaders they have hired. After years of absolute or relative failure to improve test scores, or dropout levels, or most other important criteria, school leadership just doesn’t want to talk about much of anything. This lack of transparency is why we get the concerned citizens at standing-room-only delegation meetings, wanting to talk about education. They know it’s important, they know it is not working, and they want some explanations. The futures of their children are at stake.

Let’s return to this notion of “transparency.” A thing or a process is transparent when you can see into it, when you can see the parts, how they move, and how they do what they do. Historically, politics was not very transparent. Politicians met behind closed doors, made the real decisions, and the folks were given whatever information the politicians thought they could handle. Usually, the information was whatever justified the self-serving actions of the “leaders.”

More recently, educated voters insist that their leaders give them the real information on which they, the electorate, can make good decisions. Laws such as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) serve to make open government the norm rather than the exception. As we have seen, however, intransigent public officials can defeat FOIA by simply refusing to comply. After the next legislative session, I predict that such strategies will be much less effective.

Another way that you can become an informed voter is to become a part of the government. Appointed boards and commissions are an essential part of government. In fact, there are a huge number of appointments by your delegation to different important boards and commissions currently pending. Call my office and we’ll see if we can’t find a good place for you to serve. One that comes to mind is being formed by my colleague, Rep. Shannon Erickson. She is putting together an anti-bullying task force for Beaufort County. Give her a call. Make a difference.

Next week, we will get into what reasonable folks in Jasper have every right to expect, and the good people on the front lines helping-- as well as an effort to keep the unacceptable status quo, in spite of failure after failure.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

I had planned to explain what is going on relative to the uproar over the Jasper school system. This is a very serious matter, and I will not have all the facts until at least next week. Please bear with me, as this is something that needs the cleansing power of sunshine before it will get better. When you have the full story, I’m confident you will be as angry and disappointed as I am.

On a happier, local note, the new iteration of Josh Cook’s Corner Perk is off to a great start with a classy ribbon cutting and an opening day full house. Josh is a good friend of mine, and we had been anticipating this day for far too long. When local contractor Randy West took over, the project really started to perk. It has all the comfortable intimacy of the old place with more space, a more convenient location, and most importantly, the same old Josh.

The Corner Perk is just one of a great many new or relocated businesses finding their way to Old Town Bluffton, many also finding good space in the Promenade. In truth, we have had so many ribbon cuttings that the big scissors have had to be sharpened several times.

I am happy to be able to report that around the state, there is a surge of new business. We are seeing the evidence in our quarterly tax collections. The Great Recession is in the rear-view mirror with business confidence soaring. At the risk of seeming to brag about our little part of the Lowcountry, Old Town Bluffton and the rest of District 118 are leading the parade. While those of us in real estate took some hits in the last few years, new businesses in our area actual increased by a big number.

There are a number of reasons why we are seeing such a flowering of the entrepreneurial spirit in our area. It might have something to do with the fact that houses and businesses in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and the Northeast have started to change hands again. Folks who were biding their time until things loosened up are now arriving in our neighborhoods, with good ideas for active retirement, as well as some thoughts on what phase two, or three or four will look like in their business lives. To them, I say “welcome,” the party is just getting started.

To those of us who study these things, one of the important features of our success over the years is the fact that our local water quality is still holding up pretty well. It’s almost a cliché that half of Beaufort County is under water at high tide. The recreational and soul-healing aspects of clean water cannot be overestimated.

Fortunately, there is a productive partnership between the Town of Bluffton, Beaufort County, and your legislative delegation, that has long recognized the paramount importance of water quality in our state and in our region. I continue to work with incoming Bluffton Town Manager Marc Orlando, along with our dedicated partners at Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) to insure that our yearly water quality allocation for the May River is producing the absolute highest bang for the buck from these scarce dollars. Marc, along with Town of Bluffton Water Quality maven, Kim Jones, and your representative, are working overtime to see that Town Councilman Larry and Tina Toomer’s oyster leases are open and productive, as well as on a trajectory to allow full harvesting as we go through the seasons. A pristine May River and our Town of Bluffton are just a natural fit.